Mark Mourer and Robert Frankel
You don’t need to be a botanist to help things grow. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a master’s degree in horticulture — especially if your podcasts and radio shows reach untold thousands across the state of Texas every week.
So when gardeners call Neil Sperry to ask about aphids or grumble about grubs, they can rest assured the 2003 inductee into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame has the educational chops to diagnose just about any deciduous disease.
Adopted as an infant by Dr. Omer E. and Lois Sperry, Neil was brought up in an academic household. Both of his adoptive parents worked at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas; his father was the dean of students and founder of the University’s biology department, and his mother was a librarian.
And while some kids were still sucking on their thumbs, Neil’s green thumb was already beginning to develop.
“I knew I wanted to be a grower,” Neil said. “It began with Dad helping me garden. I’d plant the seeds and he taught me to water.”
It was at the ripe age of seven he planted his first green beans. In the eighth grade, he’d opened his own nursery. And as a high school student, he ran a landscaping business, saving the money he earned for college. Of these days, he recalled waking up to read and study at 5 a.m. in the family garage by the light of his dad’s car — only to go out an hour later to water plants.
Neil and his dad even worked together. When Neil was a toddler, the Sperrys moved to College Station, Texas; there, the two brought botanical miracles to the city. One project involved helping to line a particular street with live oaks. Today, motorists can see these same trees on George Bush Boulevard.
“I picked the right street to plant those on,” Neil said with a grin.
Neil enrolled at Texas A&M. There, he joined the A&M’s flower judging team, where he competed nationally to identify and distinguish various floricultural specimens.
For one competition, Neil’s team traveled to Columbus, Ohio. Though the team did not perform very well, Neil realized he wanted to be an Ohio State Buckeye.
“I transferred the following September,” Neil said, “and one year later, the OSU flower judging team won the national championship — and I was on it!”
Neil earned both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from OSU. He took a job teaching vocational horticulture in Shelby, Ohio. By then he had married, and his wife, Lynn, taught in nearby Shiloh, Ohio.
Then, in the summer of 1970, a project leader in Extension Horticulture at Texas A&M offered Neil a job as Dallas County Extension Horticulturist. Neil and Lynn, expecting their first child, chose to put down roots in Dallas.
It was on that drive back to Texas that the course of Neil’s future was broadcast straight into their car.
“We had turned on KRLD,” Neil said. “They had this program on called ‘Ask the Experts.’ I thought, ‘What kind of experts go on the radio and expose themselves like that?’”
Neil would, of course: one of the responsibilities of the Extension horticulturalists was to provide media relations support for their research.
Beginning with Thanksgiving in 1977, Neil was part of a call-in show offering gardening advice and directions in planting. Callers began to fill up the lines, and, in 1978, Neil was offered his very own program on WFAA radio.
Neil moved to KRLD in 1980. There, he hosted “Neil Sperry’s Texas Gardening.” Also during that time, he published his first book, “Neil Sperry’s Guide to Texas Gardening,” which is the fourth-bestselling gardening hardback in American History.
In 2010, Neil switched from KRLD to WBAP. He’s been there every Sunday since. And that’s to say nothing of his empire of syndicated shows, broadcast on stations throughout Texas.
But beyond the botany and the broadcasting, Neil and his wife have immersed themselves in several initiatives, helping them spread like ivy in the community.
Neil has been an avid supporter of the Denton State Supported Living Center, and served on the board of its Volunteer Services Council for more than 20 years. He was a founder of the Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney; in fact, both he and his wife still serve on its board.
One of the projects closest to the Sperrys’ hearts, however, is that of McKinney’s Serenity High School. Since 1999, the school has helped students recovering from addiction earn a Texas high school diploma.
Through Neil’s radio supporters and Lynn’s activism — and a little help former President George W. Bush, during his time as governor — the school has grown into a springboard for students eager to blossom into new phases of their lives. Currently, the Sperrys are working to help the school raise enough money to build a single, permanent building to house all of its facilities.
Much like those live oaks Neil planted with his father in the late 1950s, so too does Neil’s legacy continue to thrive. It is due in no small part to the commitment to nurturing and growth instilled and passed on from father to son, and from son to community — both on and off the radio.
Readers may hear “Neil Sperry’s Texas Gardening” on WBAP every Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Neil’s podcasts are also available for download at www.neilsperry.com.