McCrabb: Middletown florist goes from basement business to pinnacle of petals

Roger W. Conner knew better than to mess with his grandmother’s flowers.

After working in her meticulous flower garden for hours as a young boy, Conner often wondered what it would be like to cut the flowers, arrange them in a vase and place them on a kitchen table.

He was told the flowers would die.

But the mischievous kid still considered disobeying his grandmother’s orders. Then he thought better of it.

“She would have given me a serious whoopin,’” Conner said with a laugh.

Now, some 50 years later, he’s still fascinated by the power of petals.

Conner, longtime owner of Flowers by Roger in Middletown, recently purchased one of his competitors, Flowers by Nancy on Germantown Road, and hired its owner, Susan Oakley Smith, to join his Master Floral Designers team.

To truly appreciate Conner’s rise from poverty to prosperity, we must turn the calendar back.

As a kid he helped an elderly couple run Drayer’s Florist on Central Avenue after school and on Saturdays. He was there for two and a half years. He never got paid.

Then, as part of Middletown Area Junior Achievement, Conner worked at First Financial Bank. He sat in the vault and separated money.

His father, a carpenter named William, finally was proud. He didn’t want his teenage son to work with flowers. That was no way for a man to make a living, his father commanded.

“He thought I was going to make something of my life,” Conner said. “He thought his son was going to be a banker.”

The kid received one paycheck and quit.

So he started his floral business in his parents’ basement when he was 15 with the dream of being “the biggest and best” florist in the city. By the time he graduated from Middletown High School in 1977, Conner had saved $10,000 and purchased Drayer’s. Years later, he moved the floral business to Manchester Avenue, where it remains today.

It hasn’t always been a bed of roses.

There were times when he was unable to pay the utility bills so his electricity was shut off. When he couldn’t afford to rent an apartment, he slept in a chair in the back of his flower shop and took showers by dumping cups of water on his head.

But throughout those financial hardships, Conner said his landlords never questioned his business sense.

“I was very blessed to have the right people come into my life and carry me along,” he said. “I was a kid that this city helped. They say, ‘It takes a village.’ I was one of those kids. So I belong to this city. I love this city.”

Conner said he tries to support local charities as much as possible. He has been one of the biggest sponsors of the Charity Ball that recently celebrated its 100th year.

About three years ago, Conner, 61, complained of shortness of breath and was told he had a blood clot in his heart. He had five-bypass surgery and was in the intensive care unit for 18 days.

Now, he said, he has never felt more alive physically and emotionally. His heart is repaired and he and his longtime partner, Doug Thrush, live in Middletown.

“It was like my heart surgery was a pit stop and I’m ready for the race,” said Conner, who works six days a week.

Last year was like no other in his 46 years in the flower business. When people were unable to visit their loved ones or attend funerals due to the coronavirus, they sent flowers. So they called Flowers by Roger. He said business in 2020 was up 70 percent over the previous year.

“Flowers are the No. 1 way people express emotions,” he said. “They’re powerful means of communication. Flowers speak when words cannot.”

With that Conner heard his business phone ringing. It was time to cut some flowers, create an arrangement, make memories.

And this time he didn’t have to worry about getting a whoopin’.

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