Litchfield, Conn. - Jan S. Ohms, one of the Dutch flower bulb sector's most respected elder statesmen, died Friday, May 27, after a brief illness. He was 85. Mr. Ohms was CEO of three American direct mail order gardening companies: Van Engelen, Inc.; John Scheepers, Inc.; and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, LLC, all of Bantam, Conn.
His was a fascinating and varied career that ranged from service in the Dutch underground during World War ll, to service in the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer during the Cold War, to his more than sixty year involvement in horticulture and flower bulbs in the U.S. and Holland. Mr. Ohms was known throughout the industry as a keen businessman who believed that highest quality held the key to success.
"Jan Ohms was one of the last great men standing," said Eric Breed, a Dutch flower bulb expert in Lisse, the Netherlands. "I first met him in 1983. He was one of a generation of giants, the post-war bulb sellers who built profitable businesses and a world industry on the principal of high quality and customer loyalty."
"He was of the old school," said Frans Roozen, technical director of the International Flower Bulb Center in Hillegom, the Netherlands, and himself one of the fourth generation of a flower bulb family. "He was very knowledgeable about flower bulbs and generous with that knowledge, but people and relationships were most important to him."
Jan Simon Ohms was born August 4, 1925 in Stamford, Conn. to Hendrik Jan Ohms and the former Johanna Dirkzwager, citizens of the Netherlands. In 1929, the family returned to Noordwijk, the Netherlands. There, in the heart of the Dutch flower bulb district among the dunes along the North Sea, Mr. Ohms grew up working in the family's flower bulb nurseries and bulb fields. He earned a specialized degree in Ornamental Horticulture from the Rykstuinbouwschool in Lisse, Holland. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the teenaged Mr. Ohms continued his horticultural studies while also serving with the Dutch underground fighting against the Nazi occupation.
Thanks to his Connecticut birthplace, Mr. Ohms enjoyed dual citizenship. After the war, he returned to the States and enrolled in the University of Connecticut. There, he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and also a member of the undefeated 1948 All-American Soccer Team, under coach Jack Squires. Mr. Ohms made the winning assist in the National Championship game that year. He graduated with a degree in Landscape Architecture and Agricultural Economics.
After college, Mr. Ohms served in the U.S. Air Force and with Voice of America as an intelligence officer.
Mr. Ohms married Faith van Slingerlandt in 1952. Following his service in the U.S. Air Force, Mr. Ohms moved his young family to Stamford, Conn. and started a private flower bulb company, Jan S. Ohms Inc., that sold flower bulbs to large private estates up and down the eastern seaboard. He had become the third generation of his family to carve a career in the Dutch flower bulb business.
In the 1970s, Mr. Ohms expanded his business when he acquired the fledgling Van Engelen flower bulb company. The launch of the famous Van Engelen wholesale flower bulb catalog soon followed this move. Mr. Ohms ran that catalog with the help of his wife Faith. In 1991, Mr. Ohms entered the retail mail order business when he bought the John Scheepers flower bulb company and its classic Beauty from Bulbs retail catalog. It was not only a smart business move, but a very personal acquisition, as the company had been founded in 1908 by Mr. Ohms' uncle, John Scheepers.
Today, the Van Engelen and John Scheepers flower bulb companies are among the largest importers of Dutch flower bulbs in the U.S. Over his lifetime, Mr. Ohms is credited with supplying close to a billion flower bulbs to botanical, public and private gardens across the United States.
Well-known for the quality and diversity of his flower bulb collection and personal expertise, Mr. Ohms served the industry in many capacities over the years. He was a horticultural judge for the New York Flower Show and for New York City's former International Flower Show and the Newport Flower Show, among others. In 1995, Mr. Ohms was honored by the Netherlands Royal General Bulbgrowers Association (KAVB) in Hillegom, NL, and Konijnenburg & Mark, Noordwijk, NL, when the Triumph Tulip 'Jan Ohms' was named in honor of his "outstanding achievements in the promotion and usage of Dutch flower bulbs in the U.S."
In 2002, Mr. Ohms saw the realization of a lifelong dream when the first issue of the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog rolled off the presses. Mr. Ohms had long felt there would be a demand among gourmet gardeners for a full line of upscale and unusual flower, vegetable and herb seeds from around the world.
In 1991, Mr. Ohms welcomed daughter Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms into the business. She became president of John Scheepers, Inc. in 1994. "Our business not only represents my father's legacy, it's his vision. Our team has 25 years of experience working together and we will continue to run the three companies with the high standards and ethical practices my father would expect," said Ms. van den Berg-Ohms.
Mr. Ohms leaves behind his wife of 58 years, Faith van Slingerlandt Ohms; his sister Cornelie Verdonk, of Noordwijk, the Netherlands; four daughters, Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of Bantam, Conn., Kristin McNamara, of Ridgefield, Conn., Jamie Johann, of Litchfield, Conn. and Key Largo, Fla., and Wendy Hughes, of Stratford, Conn.; three grandchildren, Ryan Johann, Kaitlyn McNamara and Faith AnNa Hughes; and four step-grandchildren, Maarten van den Berg, Jochem van den Berg, Kristin Comer and Megan Seff.