Tree farmer, 85, enjoys harvest of wide-ranging studies, travels CARROLL COUNTY SENIORS

January 13, 1993|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Contributing Writer

When one mentions that he's had a fascinating life, Ben King, 83, replies, "Life should be fascinating."

Nothing in his long life seems to have deterred him from experiencing it to its fullest: not polio at age 5, a failed first marriage, the Depression, nor the painful death of his second wife from lung cancer three years ago.

You won't find Mr. King frequenting senior centers or checking out nursing homes for a room.

He still works full time at his business, a wholesale tree farm in Millers that has earned him a place in tree propagation history, and continues his education from the hundreds of books he keeps in his home.

"One of my great abhorrences is ignorance," Mr. King says. "I learn something new every day. Right now, I'm working on three textbooks simultaneously, and I'll learn something from each before the day is over."

He rises about 6:30 a.m., tends his large poodle, Do-Da, eats breakfast, then goes to work. He likes to spend evenings with his books, reading mostly scientific texts.

When he's at home.

"I do a great deal of traveling all over the country," he says. "I've driven 3 million miles in my life. I have a little Volkswagen diesel that gets 45 miles to the gallon."

His current travels are mostly for King's Tree Farm, which has customers across the country. Loading his van with cuttings from his trees, he's been known to take off for a month to Oregon and other West Coast places.

He also makes an annual trek back home to Three Rivers, Mich., for a high school reunion with the 32 remaining members of the class of 1927.

Born and reared in Three Rivers, Mr. King early on became interested in the sciences. After high school graduation, he attended Harvard University, earning a bachelor's degree and starting work as a metallurgist.

From there he drifted into a variety of jobs: setting up cotton-grading labs for the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics, reorganizing the encyclopedia department for William Randolph Hearst's operation in Ohio, working for a sewing machine import business, running his father's apple orchards in upstate New York.

In 1950, he took over an insurance business in Baltimore and became active in initiating insurance reform throughout the country. Working with professional groups, Mr. King succeeded in establishing affordable group health insurance for those in various professions, as well as for college and university students.

He sold the insurance company in 1958 and used the profits to buy three farms in Millers over the next three years.

"I knew I wanted a farm, but I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it," Mr. King says. "While deciding, I leased the farms for growing corn and soybeans, then began planting trees."

Always interested in genetics, Mr. King turned to the study of plants "because it's less complicated than animal life."

Concerned about the demise of the American elm tree from Dutch elm disease, Mr. King set about trying to find a replacement.

In 1978, he planted 1,000 elms with no luck, then planted another 1,000 Chinese elms each year over the next three years.

Then he noticed one tree in the second year's planting that was taller and broader than the rest.

Careful monitoring over the next few years found that this was indeed the tree Mr. King had sought.

"It was an accidental breakthrough of nature and luck," he says. "It was a rare combination of alleles [the genes in the tree's chromosome which make up the genetic pattern], which on rare occasions can cause a variation in the species."

After studies found the new tree to be resistant to Dutch elm disease and insects, but otherwise carrying all the required traits of the elm tree, Mr. King took out a patent in 1985 on the tree, now known as "King's Choice."

"It's my most valuable accomplishment," he says. "It answered the problem of the demise of the American elm and has come through with a lot of qualities the American elm didn't have."

To keep the new tree "pure," it can be reproduced only asexually, that is, from cuttings of the mother tree or her daughters. King's Choice elms now grace a number of college and university campuses and are being requested for national parks and monuments, such as the Kennedy Center in Washington.

However, Mr. King stresses that the tree cannot be purchased at his farm, only through local nurseries that carry it.

His phone, in his office in a separate wing of his home, rings constantly, and Mr. King tells people to call an 800 number "any time of day or night" when they're ready to place an order or need information about his trees.

Besides all these things, Mr. King also is a writer, doing the copy for his business's brochures and working on a musical comedy -- he has a ready, sharp wit -- and has done some painting. He also speaks German.

How does he do it all?

"I eat a strong diet, no meat, fish or chicken, but 14 grains, fruit, vegetables and nuts," he says. "I haven't had a drink in 30 years. Alcohol is a poison. I smoked as a young man, but not now."

Is there anything he hasn't done?

"I've never cobbled a horse," he answers promptly. "I never put shoes on a horse -- afraid I'd hit the horse with a red hot nail and he'd kick me."

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