By Patrick Yost
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories that will look into the champions, people and ideas that continue to transform the character of Madison’s downtown, from small retailers to leaders who inspired action. Gussie Knight ran her business for half a century and her legacy continues.
It is Valentine’s Day and Gussie’s House of Flowers has arrangements packed into every corner. The main floor is full, the side tables are full, and the shop on West Jefferson Street smells glorious.
And Deanna Nunn is crying.
“I’ve been sad all day,” she says.
Andrea Eidson reaches out a hand. “This was your momma’s favorite holiday,” she says.
Sure it was. When you are in the flower business, a business that Gussie Knight started in 1971 after she worked part-time at Thompson’s Flowers and learned she had both a talent at arranging flowers and a shrewd mind for business, Valentine’s Day is the Super Bowl, is Christmas, is a watershed moment of the year.
On Valentine’s Day if you were a Knight, be it Deanna, Donna or Bill, you worked the shop. So did friends and relatives.
This year is no different. Deanna is there, so is Bill, and Andrea comes in after she finishes teaching first graders at Morgan County Primary School. The phone rings. Former Morgan County Middle School teacher Clarice Woods is going to be happy. She’s getting an arrangement but it needs to be delivered after 3 p.m., after she gets home from the Morgan County Senior Center. “I’ll take that one,” Deanna says. “I know where she lives.”
The shop and the folks getting the work done, once dubbed “The Madhouse Gang” by Charles Tamplin who would stick his head in when he left Harris Furniture, is a study in efficient chaos. Work is getting done. Orders are leaving the door and men are still coming in to grab something special for a loved one. It’s nothing new.
“Men used to be lined up to the red light at lunch on Valentine’s Day,” Deanna says.
Without its namesake, the soul of Gussie’s House of Flowers continues to live.
Gussie Knight died Jan. 28, 2020. She was 81 years old and at the A.E. Carter Funeral home the day of Gussie’s funeral, “They had never seen so many flowers,” Deanna says.
In September last year, the shop was sold to Andrea, a woman who says Gussie “was like a second mom to me.” Andrea says she started working at Gussie’s in eighth grade when she would come down from her mother Patricia’s beauty shop. She would sweep floors, water plants and learn the craft of flower arrangement. That will continue, she says.
“I love arranging flowers,” she says. “Flowers make most people happy even if it’s a sad occasion.”
Gussie and DeWitt Knight came to Madison, Georgia from Madison, Florida. DeWitt was a forester and when the couple arrived with their young family and moved into a small house on East Washington Street, Gussie and DeWitt decided this was their last move and they would spread their love together and love of family into their community. Family photos show Gussie and DeWitt, who preceded Gussie in death, stealing a kiss at the beach. “They were always kissing,” Deanna laughs. There is a photo of Gussie, with her trademark, “infectious” smile sitting on Dewitt’s knee when he was a U.S. Army soldier. There is a picture with Dewitt, Gussie and others during a supper party. All are smiling and the joy is also infectious.
There is Gussie making her trademark bow. Here’s a photo of Deanna, her daughter Peyton and Gussie shined up for an event. All are smiling.
The Knight family has kept an envious photo archive.
Here’s what the pictures don’t show.
Gussie Knight was a quiet philanthropist who kept her community in the forefront of her business practice. As long as Gussie was alive, no one went without flowers.
If a family couldn’t afford live flowers Gussie would make a silk arrangement to place on the casket. “She said I don’t want anybody to be buried without flowers,” Deanna says.
At Christmas, families with small children would received a gift bag with a special ornament. If a Morgan County church was having a significant event, Gussie sent flowers. “Every church got an arrangement from my mom,” Deanna says. “She gave more than she ever made,” she laughs.
The only thing Gussie loved more than her family and flowers, Deanna says, was the community. “She loved people.”
With her health failing, Gussie continued to work at the shop, continued to produce beloved arrangements of fragrant joy. “She had more energy than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Andrea. When Andrea was old enough to drive, she was given the keys to the shop’s delivery van. “I’ve taken everybody their Valentine’s Day arrangement since I was old enough to drive.”
“I’ve always loved this place, even early on,” Eidson says.
Bill remembers working 36-hour shifts to get the job done. Deanna remembers being called home from beach vacations to work in the shop when large funerals demanded extra help at the shop.
Bill started at the shop when he was 9 years old. “You learned how to show up and when to show up,” he says. Bill had a genetic, perhaps, disposition of creating arrangements. A florist’s medium is flowers and Bill found a calling as a child. “I got over there and started doing it when I was a kid,” he says. “Soon, they started giving me orders.” Early, Bill didn’t rely on addresses. Early, he says, you knew where everybody lived. “I learned the country roads from Gussie,” he says.
A single delivery could take an hour after the arrangement arrived and Bill spent time catching up.
Because Gussie loved people.
“It takes that to do a business like this,” Eidson says.
A business, sure, but there’s always more.
On Valentine’s Day, Eidson’s daughter Meredith, 19, was taking time from her studies at the University of Georgia to help orders flowing and she was marshaling a small band of “The Madhouse Gang” to keep things running. Family friend Susan Palmer is working the floor.
“They all volunteered,” Andrea says. “I didn’t ask.”
Edison’s mother and Gussie’s lifelong friend Patricia Knight is, on this day, wearing a Gussie’s House of Flower T-shirt and pitching in. Patricia opened Patricia’s Modern Beauty Shop in 1970, a year before Gussie started the flower shop, and the women, both enterprising entrepreneurs, became life-long friends. When Gussie’s health was failing, Deanna would take her every Sunday to Patricia’s shop to have her hair done.
“She did flowers and I did hair,” Patricia remembers. “It was something everybody needed.
“She helped everybody.”
That is what is lost in a 200 word obituary or a plaque or even the fragility of a flower arrangement. The finality of death is a benchmark for the living, a time of indescribable sadness that settles a low weight in the soul. But there is, too, a freedom. Death has meaning if a life had meaning.
Deanna is a registered nurse at St. Mary’s and has worked at the hospital for more than 30 years. She helps people. She also keeps flowers on the floor, in the waiting rooms and nurses stations. Sometimes, she buys the flowers, sometimes she picks them from her yard in Bostwick. But always, on the second floor there are flowers and so, too, there is Gussie.
Andrea takes none of this lightly. “The business speaks for itself,” she says. “What she’s done here… Gussie was loved by everybody.”
So it will continue. So Valentine’s Day will be a joyful, three-ring circus of arrangements and deliveries, and among the bustle, it will be understood if there is a quiet contemplative tear shed by an army of volunteers and a community. Churches will continue to have arrangements on special occasions and no one in Morgan County will be buried without flowers.
Gussie Knight was 81 years old when she died. In that remarkable span of service, she cast a wide net of philanthropy and love.
There is the meaning of a life well lived.