For Chuck Zala, his son, Jason’s memorial endowment with the National Horticulture Foundation serves as a bookmark in the story of a boy who grew up surrounded by the love of the industry.
“To me and to the family, the endowment means a lot,” Zala says of his eldest son who passed away in 2004. “It’s a lasting memory of our son and it benefits people in a way that I think he would have been very, very pleased with.”
Chuck, who began working in horticulture at the age of 14, has worked in almost every conceivable facet – sales, growing, purchasing. The Cleveland, Ohio native and his wife raised their two boys in South Florida, where Jason and his younger brother grew up around the industry. Chuck tells the story with pride about how hard his boys worked for him during the years he ran his own greenhouse and garden center business on the side.
“My kids grew up filling flats, sticking cuttings, watering plants,” Chuck remembers with a fondness in his voice.
After graduating from Sandhills Community College's prestigious Landscape Gardening program, Jason went to work in the horticulture industry interning at the Mellon estate in Upperville, Virginia. Jason also served at Brookside Botanical Gardens near Baltimore, Maryland. But his father says it wasn’t long before Jason began to feel pulled in another direction – creative writing.
“Unbeknownst to us all these years, he had been keeping diaries and books on his life and his experiences,” Chuck says. “He loved to write short stories; that was his forte.”
In 2002, Jason relocated to North Carolina where he enrolled at Appalachian State University's creative writing program. Still, wherever he went, he took his horticulture roots with him.
And, in true Jason fashion, he put his all into his writing, the same way he did with every other new challenge he took.
“He always strove to be the best that he could be,” Chuck adds. “In anything he did, if he decided to move forward, it was 110 percent.”
When the Zala family lost Jason at the young age of 26, they could hardly see through their grief.
Soon after, Ed Rosenthal, the head of Florikan and Chuck’s boss at the time, came to him to ask if he could do something in honor of Jason.
“Ed immediately invested in this and opened the endowment in Jason’s name,” Chuck says. “Ed started it by making a contribution, and others through the years added to it. It just grew from there.”
Today, The Jason R. Zala Memorial Scholarship Fund endowment stands at more than $18,000. Each year, the endowment helps students realize their dream of entering the horticulture industry, according to Linda Reindl, NHF administrator.
"NHF is proud to help the family keep Jason's name and memory alive within the industry," Reindl says.
The fund also offers Chuck and his family some measure of peace knowing Jason’s legacy will live on and continue to help others.
“This would have kind of closed the circle for him, and given him the inner peace that I think he was struggling for,” Chuck says of Jason. “For him to finally have this lasting memory in our industry, I think he’d be extremely proud of that.”