SAN ANGELO, TX – For decades, Ken Landon was an integral part of the San Angelo community. Some knew him as the master behind every Fourth of July fireworks display, while others will remember him as the genius that created the internationally renowned waterlily collection in City League Park. But the most important legacy Mr. Landon leaves behind is the love and generosity he gave his family, friends, and community.
Landon was born in San Angelo in 1946 to Kenneth Miller Landon and lneta Ruth Morris. At the age of 17, Landon began working with waterlilies. In an interview with the New York Times, Landon told the newspaper he purchased his first waterlily, a Nymphaea Rose Arey, at a pet store.
Landon would go on to major in industrial engineering and minor in botany in college. During the 70s, Landon conducted extensive research on waterlilies for the University of Texas –– eventually cultivating an impressive collection with many of the world's rarest species.
Around that same time, Landon worked at Olive's Nursery in San Angelo –– more than 45 years ago.
"Ken could propagate anything, things that nobody else could...It was an honor to know him," said Tommy Olive, as he remembered Landon's ability to create beautiful hybrids, ultimately attracting international waterlily enthusiasts to San Angelo. "He was a very kind and generous man."
It was then that the City of San Angelo reached out to Landon and asked for his help with Civic League Park.
At that time, the park only had one pool built in 1933 that was in dire need of help. When city officials asked for suggestions to revitalize the area, Ken Landon suggested adding waterlilies –– a decision that would put San Angelo and Ken Landon on the map with the international water garden community.
With time, dedication, and hard work, Landon helped design and build additional pools that are admired at the park today. During peak season, visitors can view some of the world's most rare and beautiful water lilies in full bloom. Landon gained his international notoriety after he hybridized the flowers to truly become one of a kind.
Landon named those waterlilies after people he loved and admired. He named flowers after some of the most important people in his life, like Jennifer Jackson and her siblings who met Landon as little kids. According to Jackson, Landon was a father figure who offered love and support to a little curious neighbor who caught a glimpse of his lilies.
Jackson remembers meeting Landon after accidentally stumbling into a kiddie pool filled with beautiful lilies. At first, she remembers being scared because she thought Landon would be upset that she was looking at his flowers, but was surprised to find him knocking at her door with a lily as a gift. From that point on, Landon became a friend and a teacher who shared his love and affection with her family.
"One day, I told a friend he's my God-given father," said Jackson. "He wasn't born to us, but God brought him into our lives."
During his decades of caring for the pools at the park, Landon traveled around the world collecting new and rare species. His work with the Lily of the Nile allowed the beautiful flower to be reintroduced to the Egyptian ecosystem after it was almost wiped out.
"He was just an amazing genius of a man," said Larry Jolley, one of Landon's closest friends. "Because of Ken, there are more water lilies in Sa Angelo than in any other water lily collection in the world."
His adventures would earn him the nickname 'Indiana Landon' after stories of his dangerous excursions became widely known. Landon gained fame for crazy acts of bravery, like diving into alligator-infested waters to retrieve a rare water lily that only existed in the most remote areas of the world.
Along with the exotic trips to find the rarest water lilies, Landon developed the famous Texas Dawn. The beautiful yellow-toned lily would become the official waterlily of the State of Texas in 2011.
Landon created the Texas Dawn in 1985, making it the first water lily to be named for the state. The gorgeous flower frequently blooms 10 inches above the surface of the water in clusters of 6 or more. In early spring, the base of the petals produces a light orange glow that slowly changes to pink in the summer.
The Texas Dawn is known for its resilient character that can withstand the West Texas heat. These attributes have earned its place as a top-ranking aquatic plant in the rigorous Texas Superstar program of the Texas Cooperative Extension of Texas A&M University.
"The [Texas Dawn] is uniquely a Texas creation," said Texas Representative Drew Darby who represents District 72 where San Angelo is located. "The flower's reputation and distinctively Texas roots make it worth of distinction."
Representative Darby worked closely with Landon and remembered him as someone who will leave a lasting legacy in Sn Angelo both at home and abroad.
"What a unique individual. You'd see him out there on hot days laboring in the ponds. You'd see him in July trying to create the firework display we all love," said Darby. "Ken Landon was a genuine, hardworking, caring person. He cared about his community, he cared about his profession, and he cared about our country."
Today, a copy of House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 24 adopted in 2011 designating the Nymphaea Texas Dawn as the official State Water Lily of Texas hangs in Darby's office at the Texas Capitol. Darby also has a painting by Katherine Pittman of San Angelo. The painting is titled "Texas Dawn" and was created in recognition of the designation.
Landon was also known for his extensive experience and expertise with fireworks. For years he prepared the pyrotechnic displays enjoyed by thousands at the annual July 3 Pops Concert in the downtown River Stage and a second, and larger, show at Lake Nasworthy on the Fourth of July. One of the last shows put together by Landon was the A Star-Spangled Banner Concert and Fireworks show hosted at the Riverstage. The last July 3 show was the biggest with over 11,000 people in attendance throughout downtown San Angelo.
Check out footage from the show in this video from the City of San Angelo:
Landon was the only pyrotechnician licensed to work with fireworks in San Angelo. In addition to his engineering degree, Landon helped build jet engines during the Vietnam War –– further expanding his expertise.
“Ken Landon’s passion and talents brought great joy to many citizens, as well as visitors. Everyone loved the great firework shows that he put on for decades. His passion and knowledge of lilies brought San Angelo international attention, said Mayor Brenda Gunter in a statement. "San Angelo was fortunate to have him in our community and we were fortunate that he was willing to give us access to his talents. He is irreplaceable in so many ways. Finding someone to follow in his enormous footsteps is going to be very difficult.”
But beyond his genius with flowers and fireworks, Landon was the best known to his family and friends for his giving heart. While he never had any biological children, he impacted the lives of many young people who shared his love of nature. For years he mentored San Angelo youth who were interested in his work with the water lilies.
He was well known for his 'quirky' sense of style that made him memorable to those who knew him. According to Jolley, during the last years of his life, a plaid, pearl snap cowboy shirt, and camouflage pants were his go-to outfit. According to Jackson, Landon loved color and patterns –– which is likely why he was inspired to work with colorful water lilies.
In addition to his work cultivating beautiful flowers, Landon helped found the International Water lily Collection and the International Water lily Preservation Repository. His work made San Angelo a must-see stop for water gardening enthusiasts who travel the world seeking out rare and beautiful water lilies.
The City of San Angelo had the distinct honor of hosting international guests during an official IWG event twice. This year, the annual Lilyfest will honor Landon's life and legacy on September 18.
“[Landon] will deeply be missed. I have known him for more than 20 years, first as a part-time employee, then as a contractor, providing the wonderful aquatics display. He was ever-present at either the greenhouses at our parks shop or at the collection at Civic League Park," Parks & Recreation Director Carl White said in a statement. "But if folks remember him for anything, it would be for the spectacular beauty he created in the blooms of the numerous varieties of water lilies, many which he hybridized and created himself. Today, someone suggested it seemed odd that someone would both create water lilies and fireworks. I responded, ‘It makes perfect sense to me, he used his knowledge of chemistry to create beauty, both in the sky and in the water.’ He will deeply be missed."
Landon touched the lives of countless people during his time on Earth. Whether he is remembered for his beautiful flowers, amazing fireworks displays, or eccentric outfits, Landon made a lasting impact in this community as everyone remembers one of his memorable phrases, "It's going to be okay, just be happy."
Visitation for Mr. Landon will take place on Wednesday, July 21 at Robert Massie Riverside Chapel from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
On Thursday, July 22, family and friends are invited to join a stroll through the Waterlily Collection from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at Civic League Park. Coffee, juice, donuts will be served for those who attend.
The funeral service will be held at St. Paul Presbyterian Church on July 22 at 10 a.m. –– followed by the burial at Lawnhaven Memorial Gardens.
In lieu of flowers, his closest friends are asking community members to make donations to any of the following charities in Ken Landon's name: San Angelo Garden Club, West Texas Rehab, Humane Society of Tom Green County, San Angelo Area Foundation, or a charity of their choice.