DECATUR, Ill. | The man who arranges silk flowers into memorials never disappoints a faithful customer, living or dead.
John "Bob" Carr says he owes them faithfulness in return, a quid pro quo of mutual respect. So when the call comes in from some son or daughter living in Texas or wherever and asking him to drive to a Decatur cemetery buried in snow and place a colorful silk flower grave saddle on their mom's headstone, Carr saddles up and heads out.
He goes armed with a trusty broom and a strong faith in the directional helpfulness of cemetery caretakers — "those people are wonderful" — and sets about brushing clear the names of the dearly departed until he nails the right one. "And I think the longest it's taken me to find one is about an hour," he adds. "The stones flush with the ground are the toughest."
Years ago, the florist used to take pictures of the arrangements and mail them back to the distant offspring so they could rest easy knowing their will was done. Now after 28 years in the flower business and being as familiar with old customers as old friends, there's really no need for proof.
"The customers have been loyal to me, and I am loyal to them," says Carr, 70.
All of this saying it with flowers is kind of surprising, however, since he is somewhat retired from the blooming business these days. Carr and his sister, Aliff Goodrich, ran Betty & Bob's Flower Shops in Decatur and later Taylorville for a combined total of more than 20 years. The Betty & Bob name was inherited, but Carr answered to Bob as his sister answered to Betty because, well, it was just easier to go with what people assumed, and Carr says the customer is always right.
He sold the Decatur store in 2005 and wrapped up business at the Taylorville shop in 2011 because he was wilting a bit with health issues and needed to rest easy. He officially got out of fresh flowers altogether, but the favored customers who trust him and no one else to mark their births, marriages and deaths have persuaded him to continue to offer live flower services for them. And he never stopped handling the silk flower arrangements and now specializes in them for customers new and old.
Lots of those new customers also stick around long enough to become old customers, and it seems people just naturally like and trust this flower man for all seasons and remember him fondly, no matter where they encounter him. In a diverse life (he's a registered nurse with a master's degree in business and used to run a restaurant), he combined flowers as a side job for 21 years while working as business administrator at the Lincoln and Logan correctional centers. Many prisoners cultivated a place in their hearts for the kind official with the ready smile and never forgot him.
"For years after I retired (2001), I'd be out somewhere like Kroger's and someone would come up to me and say, 'Mr. Carr, how are you?' " he recalls. "And I always knew it was a former inmate; nobody else called me 'Mr. Carr.' "
Flower customers call him Bob, and one of the special ones he still provides live flower services for is Denise Malleos, of Decatur. A pillar of the Church of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Malleos relies on Carr to come up with spectacular arrangements for holy occasions and is never disappointed.
"He delivers, absolutely," Malleos says.
Once, when she forgot to pick up an important arrangement for a looming church event and got to his store to find Carr had gone home, she was actually temped to break his shop window so she could collect it. Malleos resisted with difficulty and confessed to him the next day the sin she had contemplated.
"He said, 'Denise, why didn't you? It would have been OK,'" recalls Malleos. "That's really the kind of person he is."
These days, you will find him in "Abe and Bob's Flower Shop" in Decatur, his final commercial resting place. He sits in there, assembling his stunning silk flower arrangements into grave saddles (now with cool solar lights) and hanging baskets and combines the faux flowers with another passion, dealing in real antiques.
"I've worked all my life and I can't retire," he says of his need to keep creative fingers busy. "And I need people, too; I enjoy people. I don't want to hibernate. If you look around, most florists die in their business."
This time, that business is housed in a rambling Victorian home that is a colorful riot of silk flowers and treasures from the past. The store logo features pictures of Carr and his silent business partner, Abraham Lincoln, the latest trade name he has added to his collection.
"People will call and actually ask for Abe," Carr says with a grin. "And I'll say, 'Sorry, he's resting right now.' "