Blue Highways Journey – Episode 14 – Vision

Berl Corker was preparing for what could possibly be his last blue highways journey.  Berl and Adam Steele had founded the original company together and were of the same age. Like Adam, Berl was dealing with health issues but wanted to continue working as long as possible. He asked his likely successor, Vicki James, to join him on this journey.

Berl had interviewed Vicki 20 years ago and immediately liked her. Their interview consisted of a one-hour discussion of how toothpicks were made. Berl had grown up watching a TV show called Industry on Parade, which showed how products were made. Vicki was from the YouTube generation and had the same obsession. They were admittedly operations geeks.

The trip was filled with insights into how America works. They marveled at barn design. They were fascinated by mining of coal. They couldn’t believe the intricacies sock production. But for all their fascination with making things, it was an invitation to dinner that became their lasting memory.

When they arrived at the Coburn family’s home, they were immediately impressed by the flower gardens. When they exited the car, the flower scents were fabulous. “Berl, this is amazing. You know, we’ve bred scents out of flowers when we favored looks over fragrance,” said Vicki. Berl never realized there was this organic side to Vicki until now.

As expected, the dinner was wonderful. But what was especially surprising was the taste of the vegetables. “We grow heirloom vegetables,” Vince Coburn explained. Suddenly Vicki and Vince began a long discussion on heirloom plants. For Berl, this was fascinating and a world he knew little about.

Vince took them to a shed in the back. Inside were seeds and cuttings in glass jars. Vince explained: “My great grandfather started this collection and it’s been handed down through family generations. The rose trellis that you saw when you came to our front porch is from rose cuttings of over 150 years ago.”

“This is very impressive and your tenacity in keeping this going is beyond belief. Do you know why your great grandfather started this?” asked Berl.

“He was a man of vision and thought that someday people would want to revisit what was growing over time. This was before we understood anything about genes. As you know, we are losing our biodiversity every year. I guess my great grandfather was on to something.” 

That evening remained in Berl’s and Vicki’s consciousness as they started home. It was a month later Vicki entered Berl’s office and said: “I have some exciting news. One of my classmates from college has a pharmaceutical company that ‘mines’ the genetic makeup of long forgotten plants and uses genetic traits to create new drugs. They would like to meet with Vince and create a discovery lab from his heirloom plant collection.”

For Berl this was an epiphany. “It’s fascinating how a vision of the future can come from preserving our past. Think of all the talent that we have seen leave our company when they retired. We have never preserved our heirloom expertise. How much could that be worth to us as we go forward?”

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“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” – Helen Keller

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