LINCOLN — The term “plantsman” is reserved for someone with an uncanny knowledge of plants that transcends an economic or scientific interest.
Those who knew Harlan Hamernik professionally and personally say he embodied the distinction.
The 76-year-old founder of Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Neb., died Monday following an explosion and fire at his home in Clarkson.
The cause of the explosion was being investigated Tuesday, but authorities believe it was accidental.
“We know we can rule out any sort of foul play,” Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl said.
Hamernik, who was home alone at the time, suffered severe burns in the explosion. Members of Clarkson Fire and Rescue arrived within three minutes and provided medical attention, Kracl said. Hamernik died shortly before 11 p.m. at the burn unit of St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln.
Hamernik combined a talent for business and a boundless zeal for plants to build one of the nation's leading nurseries.
The impact of his death was felt far beyond his hometown of Clarkson.
More than a successful businessman, Hamernik was a true champion of plant life native to the Great Plains, who developed untold numbers of cultivars now commonly grown across the country, said Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator at the Denver Botanical Garden. The garden's collection includes about 600 plants developed by Bluebird Nursery.
“He was one of the two or three best in the United States, ever,” Kelaidis said Tuesday. “Nebraska will never have a better ambassador.”
Hamernik and his wife, Shirley, founded Bluebird Nursery in 1958. The nursery has since grown to three locations in Clarkson and features about 10 acres of greenhouses that supply wholesalers from all states but Hawaii. His three sons now run the nursery.
In a community of 650 people, the nursery employs about 50.
In 2007, Hamernik started H.H. Wild Plums, a company that specialized in growing woody plants adapted to the Great Plains. Although he was supposed to be semi-retired, he never much warmed up to the concept, said his son Tom Hamernik.
“He had a tenacious demeanor,” his son said. “You didn't dare tell him he couldn't do something.”
He also was fiercely loyal to his hometown and served both as a Village Board member and as mayor. He also served on his volunteer fire department and as an emergency medical technician for more than 40 years.
His knowledge of plants made him a popular speaker at national conferences. He traveled to China, Mongolia and other countries where he collected plants that he brought back to Nebraska to cultivate.
“He was very interested in all the things he didn't know about the plant world,” Tom Hamernik said.
Dan Mulhall, co-owner of Mulhall's Garden Center in Omaha, said Hamernik possessed a vast wealth of knowledge, which was surpassed only by a desire to share that wealth with anyone.
“He saw central Nebraska and Nebraska in general as a garden that needed to be nurtured and encouraged, but not changed a lot,” Mulhall said. “He really understood the ecology of the state.”
Hamernik is survived by his wife, three sons, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Clarkson Opera House.
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