John W. Selby, 88, educator, owner of produce stand

October 15, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

John W. Selby, a former Queen Anne's County educator and professional baseball scout who was better known to resort-bound vacationers and local residents as the good-natured Farmer John, died of complications from a stroke Wednesday at University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 88 and lived in Centreville.

For the past 50 summers, Mr. Selby had sold fresh Eastern Shore produce, first for 27 years from a roadside stand on Route 50 near Queenstown, and since 1982 along Route 8 near the Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville.

"He had a stroke while pulling sweet corn in a field near Centreville back on Sept. 23. It was the last of his 2005 sweet corn," said longtime friend, Jim Barton.

Much of Mr. Selby's produce was grown on the 130-acre Centreville farm of his former student and longtime friend, Tom Morris, and Mr. Morris' son.

However, Mr. Selby didn't stand idly by waiting for the Morrises to bring in his crops, and he often took to the fields to join them in the work.

"He was just a character, and I fooled with him for 30 years. He'd work seven days a week, and that summer roadside stand was his whole life. It kept him going," said Mr. Morris, owner of Bachelor's Hope Farm. "He'd be out in the fields pulling corn at 6 a.m. and then open the stand at 9 a.m. I'd go out and help him, and some days we'd pull between 60 and 120 baskets of corn."

During the winter months, Mr. Selby spent his time assiduously studying seed catalogues in an endless quest to find the best corn, cantaloupes, tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, string and lima beans to plant next season.

Rather than Silver Queen corn, he liked Frosty, a sugar-enhanced white corn, or Treasure and Millennium. He preferred Pik Red tomatoes, which do well in the soil of the Eastern Shore.

With cantaloupes, it was the Apollo and Eclipse over the common Athena, and when it came to watermelons, Mr. Selby enjoyed eating and selling the big Crimson Red types and Twilley's 5244, a smaller, seedless watermelon.

"He knew what he was doing and didn't sell anything in his market that wasn't top of the line. For instance, if he felt the corn wasn't good enough, he'd leave it in the field," Mr. Morris said.

Irascible at times and full of opinions, Mr. Selby's world grew exponentially when he embraced the cell phone some years ago.

"John could be a handful at times. He'd call you from the field where he was pulling corn. ... He'd call me sometimes at 10 p.m. He just loved to talk," Mr. Morris recalled with a laugh.

"And he could be very entertaining. He had those people who came to his stand thinking he was an old farmer. He'd be dressed in an old shirt, pants, shoes and hat," he said.

He also enjoyed imparting doses of rural wisdom when selling produce to customers. He advised them to purchase only watermelons that had a lost their "shiny look," and to "thump test" their cream-colored bottoms.

In a 1995 article in The Sun, he warned consumers to "stay away from any place that has a mound of cantaloupes 5 feet high" because of their relatively short shelf life.

"You come back in a few days, those cantaloupes will still be there, and they won't be any good," he said. And after smelling and shaking them, he added: "You don't want to hear seeds shaking."

Mr. Selby was born and raised in Delmar, Del., and graduated from Delmar High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1941 from Washington College and a master's degree in education from the University of Delaware. He also did postgraduate work at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While at Washington College, Mr. Selby earned the nickname "Big Slat," and with his pitching and batting expertise helped his college baseball team win Maryland Collegiate League championships in 1938, 1939 and 1940.

After graduating from college, he went to work for the old Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Middle River, where he served for several years as supervisor of planning and scheduling, until beginning his teaching career in Queen Anne's County public schools in 1947.

During his 36-year career as a teacher and counselor at Centreville High School and a teacher at Queen Anne's County High School, Mr. Selby initiated college night and career day programs. At Queen Anne's County High School, he established a chapter of the National Honor Society.

One of the most successful high school coaches in the state during his 21 years leading the baseball team at Queen Anne's County High School, Mr. Selby compiled a 187-37 record. When he earlier coached soccer at Centreville High School for four years, his teams won 34 consecutive victories and three state championships. He retired in 1983.

He was inducted into Washington College's Athletic Hall of Fame, Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame and was a member of the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame.

In addition to his high school coaching, Mr. Selby was also a scout for the Chicago White Sox and then-Kansas City Athletics, with several of his prospects making it to the major leagues.

He also helped establish what is now Queen Anne's County Parks and Recreation and founded youth baseball and basketball teams. He had been president of the Bi-State Baseball League, president of the Central Shore Basketball League and had served as commissioner of Amateur Baseball for the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Selby was married for 57 years to the former Margaret Kathryn Wolcott, who died in 2000.

Mr. Selby was a communicant of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Centreville, where services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Surviving are a daughter, Margaret Susan Selby of Centreville; two sisters, Mary S. Mitchell of Del Mar and Rosalie S. Whelpton of Winter Haven, Fla.; and his companion, Terry L. Mauk of Centreville.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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