Thirty-one years ago, Frank Williams was out of work and says he couldn’t find a job anywhere in his hometown of Savannah. And, it was 31 years ago that he also made a promise to God — a promise he has worked hard to keep.
“I said, Lord, if you’ll help me find a job, I’ll work and work,” he says. “And I hadn’t lied to the Lord, because I’m still working.”
Williams, also known as Mr. Bamboo, has spent the past 31 years working at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm on Canebrake Road. This 51-acre horticultural attraction along Highway 17 is a treasure trove of Savannah history with ornamental gardens, a bamboo maze, pick-your-own berry fields and a collection of more than 70 different species of bamboo plants — and some of those bamboo species are the first of their kind ever planted on North American soil.
But Williams laughs and says he didn’t know anything about bamboo when he was first asked to come out and work at the gardens over three decades ago.
“When I first came here, and I saw people come here to look at the bamboo, I wondered what they saw in bamboo. They looked like they saw so much to it that they wanted to get up to and eat it. But I worked around it long enough that I learned how to identify all the varieties we have here,” he said.
The self-educated bamboo guru quickly rattles off bamboo facts, like how it can grow 18 inches in 24 hours, how it’s full of fiber and all the ways you can use bamboo to make items like tables, chairs, flooring and more.
And it’s no surprise he’s become an expert on bamboo. During his 31-year tenure at the gardens, Williams has never been late to work or called in sick — even when he was undergoing cancer treatments.
“I love what I do,” he says with a smile. “I wish I could tell anybody that is coming up through life, try to find something that you would be satisfied doing and you won’t be hating to go to work. You’ll enjoy going to work. I just love what I do.
“I like to hear people say how nice the place looks. I like nature. In the Bible, God tells us to take care of the Earth. I like to see things grow, and I like to see things look nice.”
Though you may assume this soft-spoken gentleman takes a laid-back approach to tending to the gardens, you will quickly see he’s a bit of a perfectionist, and never seems to stop finding ways to make the grounds look better — which earned him his other nickname, Sparkplug.
While driving his cart around the grounds to show off his year-long camellia project, he points to a small patch of ivy climbing the chain-link fence near the entrance of the gardens.
“That’s gotta go,” he says. “I don’t like the way that looks. Plus, everybody driving by is going to see that.”
And the grounds are just about perfect. From the iris beds to the rose gardens to the vast varieties of manicured bamboo and palm plants, it really takes an inside view to appreciate what is hidden behind the bamboo wall that surrounds the grounds.
“We’ve had people come out for a tour and say they felt like they just went on a vacation, but there are people in Savannah and they don’t know what’s here. All they see is that bamboo you see. Before I worked here, I thought the same thing.”
Williams says he is always inviting people out to see the gardens, but his favorite visitors are the school children who come out for field trips.
“Children is the future,” he says and taps his finger on the table to make his point. “If children don’t know about plants, they won’t know where the food comes from. They’ll think it just comes from the grocery store.”
A special honor
And now when the children come out to visit, they’ll be able to learn more about the gardens at the recently renamed classroom annex, The Frank Williams Classroom. The honor was bestowed to Williams by the Friends of the Coastal Gardens during a special dinner held on the grounds.
Pat Hackney, membership chair for Friends of the Coastal Gardens, says, “No kinder, harder working man has ever walked through the gates of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens than Mr. Frank Williams.”
Hackney met Williams back in 1987, when he first started his job. At the time, she was the Chatham County Extension director, the department that operated the gardens at the time. During that time, she and others have witnessed his dedication to his work at the gardens.
“... He quickly educated himself in the cultivation, care, harvesting and use of bamboo growing throughout the 51 acres,” Hackney says. “He became the ‘go-to guy for bamboo.’ In fact, when anyone comes on the property inquiring about bamboo, they are referred to Mr. Frank. His use and craftsmanship of bamboo is visible on the museum's portico, cottage sunroom, conference center chair-railing and on the exterior of the classroom building named in his honor.”
Hackney explains the plan to name the classroom after Williams was an idea that everyone seemed to quickly embrace.
“Last fall, when we were planning the Camellia Festival and were assigning buildings for the different seminars, one was scheduled to be held in the Annex. I thought, ‘Annex?’ This is such a boring name for a building at the gardens. All of the other buildings had names descriptive of their use or history.”
When asked what they should call it, she said, “Why not call it Mr. Frank's classroom? He had taught classes in the building ... and is a beloved longtime employee at the gardens.”
The idea quickly caught on and a dedication and ceremony was held in late April during the annual Strawberry Supper.
But Williams says he had no idea the group would make such a “big deal” of honoring him. He is one of 13 brothers and sisters and has children of his own, so he says being able to share that night with his family and friends was so important to him.
Lifetime of blessings
“It brought tears to my eyes. It taught me that you don’t have to tell a person your worth; your work will speak for you. That’s what happened; they saw the work I did.
“If you've got God in your life, he’ll make you want to do things for other folks. And I’m still learning about that; it ain’t about me, it's about other folks. That’s the way I live. And he blesses me.”
Williams tears up a bit and takes a breath to compose himself.
“He’s just good to me. I didn’t have to be here. And the people that have come into my life by being here is a blessing, too. You can work with people like that for a lifetime.”
And it could possibly be a lifetime that Williams spends toiling the soil, repairing equipment and tirelessly cutting back bamboo at the gardens. At 73 years old, he still works three days a week, but says he won’t fully retire unless he is asked to.
“The Lord said, 'Honor your mother and your father and your days will be long upon the Earth.' I feel like that’s why he blessed me to be the age I am.
“I made a promise to the Lord to work hard, and I work just as hard now as I did when I first came here.”