COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND – An artist of pedigree, Ferdinand Leaf died today, aged 79, due to complications from prostate cancer. His friends and neighbors will miss him.
Born in the Andalusia region of Spain in 1936, Ferdinand has always cited his mother as a prime influence. In a 1987 interview with 60 Minutes he said, “She was such an understanding mother, and though some people called her a cow, she let me do what I wanted and be happy, even though others laughed at me.”
Ferdinand spent his early life in Spain, until a traumatic event cut his idyllic childhood short. He was kidnapped from Cork Tree, where he lived with his mother, and forced to participate in the Madrid bullfights. Though never speaking openly about it, close friends of Ferdinand have said that the period included physical abuse and castration. Ferdinand managed to escape, but the culprits remained at large for the duration of his life. “The only thing that kept me going,” he said in the 1987 interview, “was the flowers in the women’s hair. They reminded me of the flowers at home. When I heard Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, that song, what is it, ‘Mountain Hop something’? That line, Crowds of people sittin’ on the grass with flowers in their hair… That’s what it was like there then. I don’t think anyone was surprised I ended up where I did.”
Soon after Ferdinand’s escape from Madrid, the Spanish Civil War broke out and Ferdinand was picked up by members of the War Resisters’ International and taken to their children’s refuge in the French Pyrenees. He remained there for some time and eventually joined the movement, relocating to WRI’s headquarters in London, England. He was there during the Second World War and spent many hours underground with other Londoners during the Blitz. “I still have nightmares about the grayness down there,” Ferdinand told 60 Minutes.
Determined to leave Europe altogether after WWII, Ferdinand immigrated to the United States. Starting in New York, he hitchhiked across the country, a journey documented in his memoir FERDINAND AND… When he couldn’t secure rides, he would gather wildflowers, arrange them, and sell them by the roadside or to couples dining at local establishments. Once he arrived in California he found a job in San Francisco at a florist’s shop and made the West Coast his home for years to come.
Ferdinand joined the Berkeley riots even though he was older than many of the younger activists, continuing his lifelong commitment to pacifism. His signature move, known among the student protesters, was throwing flower petals at policemen. Ferdinand became disillusioned with the protests, as he attested in a StoryCorps session from 2012: “I used to sit all night ripping out those petals, one by one by one, until I had the basket full of them, and one time I just thought, what am I doing? I am destroying beautiful things.”
Late in life, Ferdinand attended the Institute of Applied Agriculture at the University of Maryland and become a professional floriculturist. He stayed on to work in the IAA’s gardens and greenhouses. He was beloved by the students, both his contemporaries and those who came after him.
“He was never the same after he got the diagnosis,” one student said recently. “He would just sit there sometimes, in the garden, smelling the flowers just quietly. He seemed happy, though.”