Obituary for John A. Starnes, Jr. by Charlei Scott

Early in the morning on November 26, 2019, beloved rosarian and avid gardener John A. Starnes Jr. began his journey to the eternal compost heap. A tragic house fire claimed his life and most of his worldly possessions but, in an irony befitting to only him, left his fart machine almost perfectly preserved atop his dresser.

John was born on August 15, 1953 in Monroe County Florida and spent his younger years in the Florida Keys. As a hippie during the 70’s, John took up gardening in Tampa – a city he loved dearly his whole life. Between ‘87 and ‘98, John experimented with a more temperate climate in Denver, the city that birthed his life’s work breeding (“boinking”) roses and abhorring cold winters. In ‘98, as soon as he was able, he returned to South Tampa, the place he called home. For years, John wrote a column with gardening advice for the then-named St. Petersburg Times and authored his own gardening magazine quarterly, The Garden Doctor. In addition to his gardening wit, poignant poetry, and frequent online proclamations of love for dinosaurs and stinky limburger cheese on dark rye, John also created wacky futuristic and modern sculptures that embraced his “trailer trash on acid” style found in his floor to ceiling mirrored and disco ball bedecked living room. While appearing wild and wacky, to those who knew him best, it was clear that John valued the ridiculous as much as he believed in intentionality, responsibility, and no BS.

John was unashamed and exuberant about pretty much every aspect of his life. Once quoted in a 1999 article as saying that he didn’t “…think any household object should be an innocuous presence,” anyone who knew John would likely agree that this describes how he felt about everything. The mundane to others would become the most colorful story from John. He chronicled his daily life on Facebook, especially after having a stroke several years ago. Photos of his favorite scantily clad garden helpers with large pecs and oiled-up bods made regular appearances among updates on his favorite local eats, grocery store employees, and garden tips and tricks. Everywhere John went as a regular, restaurant, store, or otherwise, he would get to know the people there. It was likely an impossible task to become someone in the background if you had a regular occasion to be in his presence. Whether positive or negative, John knew how he felt about people and things around him and was never afraid to say so, exactly as he saw it. His love of roses was as prolific as his reputation as a man who spoke his mind – he was equally unconcerned with the reception of both the most serious and ridiculous of topics.

A self-proclaimed atheist, John was a better example of ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ and knowing your neighbor well than most anyone around. In a classic Mr. Rogers way, he took the responsibility of being a good neighbor to heart, inquiring about ongoing projects, holidays, cultural differences, and anything that would connect him to the people around him. He could tell anyone about his immediate neighbors and regularly shared both his knowledge and the bounty of his yard with those surrounding him. Despite frequent self-references to being cheap, John was incredibly giving with his time and resources to others.

John is survived by his rescue dog, Cracker, his cat Shadow, and innumerable friends and mentees from his countless years doing what he loved.

“If you live,
count all your heartbeats for one minute
and know that once, you weren’t alive and
that once again, someday,
you won’t be.”
(from “If you live” by John Starnes, written 12/17/81)

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