In Memoriam: Thomas DeBaggio (1942 to 2011)

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Susan has been writing for The Herb Companion since 1989; she also has written for Ogden Publications Herbs for Health and GRIT magazine. Susan lives an herbal lifestyle–she is a culinary herbalist and educator; and she cultivates, cooks, photographs, crafts, and creates medicinal and aromatherapeutic herbal products. Her favorite pastimes are reading, writing and observing the plants and traveling about sharing the titillating sensory experiences of herbs with like-minded individuals.,,

On February 21, 2011, Thomas DeBaggio died in his sleep at a nursing home in Annandale, Virginia at the age of 69 due to Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Joyce, and son Francesco DeBaggio, as well as his sister, Mary Ann Lovett. The following evening, National Public Radio did a short piece about Tom.

Tom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 57 in 2000, and NPR interviewed Tom, Joyce and Francesco periodically during the following ten years. These programs resonated with many listeners across the nation, as Tom was an honest and courageous person who wanted to educate the world about the debilitating and frustrating symptoms of this disease. 

Tom wrote two intimately revealing and heart-wrenching books, Losing My Mind (The Free Press, 2002) and then When It Gets Dark (The Free Press, 2003) about his battle with Alzheimer’s. He had cards made with a photo of his brain compared to a normal brain as a fund raiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. He and Joyce appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak about the disease and his slow decline. Washington Post staff writer and gardening columnist Adrian Higgins wrote a tribute about Tom this week.

I first met Thomas DeBaggio back in 1980 when Carolyn Dille and I were writing our first book, Cooking with Herbs. We were looking for advice from an herb grower and found Tom and DeBaggio Herbs through the herbal grapevine and made a date to visit him. We got very lost getting there and arrived late, giggling and flustered, and rather than being impatient with us, Tom welcomed us and we spent the afternoon with him. That was the beginning of our long friendship with this intelligent, generous, not to mention humorous, introspective man.

Tom generously gave us his ‘Growers’ Guide’ to use in our Cooking with Herbs, which was published in 1981 by Van Nostrand Reinhold. He was supportive of our book project and gave us good, sound advice. Over the years, we spent many hours together in his backyard and greenhouses, at herb demos and booksignings, and dining together in all of our respective homes and various restaurants. He was always enthusiastic and supportive in regards to our many book projects, and besides herbs, would grow everything from alliums and greens to chile peppers and tomatoes–whatever topic we were researching. Besides being an excellent plantsman, his background in journalism helped produce his herbal newsletter and his memorable ‘Ol Peeps Diary’, many articles in magazines and newspapers, and numerous books.

In the late 80s, Tom introduced Carolyn and me to Linda Ligon, publisher of the Herb Companion and owner of Interweave Press. Linda supported our love of herbs and writing and published our work in the magazine and in a number of books. I believe that Linda Ligon and Thomas DeBaggio were visionaries of the herbal movement. Tom wrote Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting and Root, Interweave Press, 1994.

When Tom asked me to collaborate with him on writing a book on basil, I was honored and delighted. That was a period of time when I worked closely with Tom, and had I not already known it from the quality of the plants that he grew, I found that he was a perfectionist in many ways. We spent hours with the 99 different types of basil plants that we grew, kept copious notes on everything from germination and number of leaves per plant to their individual fragrance and flavor, and spent a lot of time on the phone and at the computer. He wrote and rewrote, we’d edit and he’d rewrite some more–never wanting to let it go in case he could make it better. Eventually, past our deadline, he had to let the manuscript go in order to see the book published. Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide was published by Interweave Press in 1996.

It took Dr. Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio ten years to write The Big Book of Herbs, Interweave Press 2000, an herbal tome and resource that I refer to more than any other book on herbs. It has recently been revised and published by Timber Press, 2009 as The Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Francesco DeBaggio.

Words cannot truly express my admiration for Thomas DeBaggio; he nourished so many of us with his plants, knowledge, publications and his generous spirit. In response to finding that Tom had died, I received communication from a number of herbal colleagues, which I share here with their permission.

Thoughts about Thomas DeBaggio:

Tom’s passions were many and as deep as his knowledge–justice, herbs and all plants, fishing, writing of all genres, and craft. He was an investigative reporter of note in the sixties, an unparalled plantsman, and a person who never stopped improving whatever he did. He didn’t suffer fools or incivility, and was one of the most generous people I’ve known. His encouragement to me and to many others helped shape our worlds. His humor brightened our days, especially when we could laugh in person with him. His words still offer knowledge and enthusiasm and an incandescent model of what one honest human can accomplish, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
–Carolyn Dille, poet, writer, workshop & retreat leader
Santa Cruz, California  

Tom and his nursery, DeBaggio Herbs, quickly became the go-to place for great herbs and correct information (both previously in rather short supply).  You could always count on Tom’s quick wit and dry sense of humor to add spice to your nursery visit.  I consider the book Tom authored with Dr. Arthur Tucker, The Encyclopedia of Herbs, to be the authoritative reference guide to herbs of flavor and fragrance.  My copy is well worn and I rely on it for great information.  
–Holly H. Shimizu, Executive Director
U.S. Botanic Garden
Washington, DC

Tom had an excellent but, sadly, rare approach to gardening. He first “milked” everyone, such as Extension Agents and academics, for pertinent information and further readings.  He remarked that academics were willing to give him hours or even days to dispense important information.  This approach is contrary to about 99% of the growers with whom I have had contact. They trust some anonymous nursery or Web page, plant several acres, and then call me when they have planted the wrong plants or the plants have died and expect some sort of miracle. This is how I first met Tom, and later, when I read his writings, I knew that he was a unique individual. He combined the best of both popular journalism and science. When we first collaborated on The Big Book of Herbs, he said that he had to “translate my writings to English.” I was at first taken aback, but then I laughed because I knew what he meant; as a scientist, I had been taught formulaic writing: introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion (the statistics often took precedence over readibility). I trusted Tom to rewrite sections, but my caveat was that he not to change the facts in the process. Of course, I would be untruthful if I implied that this was one-sided, but we were able to critique each other and still remain friends, I guess because of mutual respect. I have that relationship with only a few people outside of my family, and I will miss Tom.
–Dr. Arthur O. Tucker, co-author 
professor at Delaware State University
Dover, Delaware

Tom was a big influence on the entire herb industry, not just in America, but here in Canada and elsewhere. His insistence on accuracy, his keen eye for novel and exotic varieties, and his gift for communicating what he learned, helped shape an emerging industry. We at Richters benefited from his deep dedication to herbs in many ways: from his wonderful books and articles on herbs to his varieties of rosemary and lavender.
–Conrad Richter, President
Richters Herbs
Goodwood, Ontario, Canada

This is a sad day for many in the American herbal world, but possibly not much sadder than the many years that we have known of Tom’s poor and deteriorating condition. He was such a knowledgeable and vibrant fellow!
–Mark Blumenthal, Founder & Executive Director
American Botanical Council
Austin, Texas 

Thanks for passing on the inevitable bad news. I weep, alone, and with the world, in relief. I weep for him, his wife and son. How agonizing. Just this week I was reading his books. It was discomforting reading his books. I did not know him well but appreciated that he was Mr. Rosemary. 
–Dr. James Duke, PhD., ethnobotanist & author
Green Farmacy Garden
Fulton, Maryland

This has been a hard, long, and eye-opening journey for all who knew and cared for Tom. I will never forget his knowledge, sly humor, and his ability to connect with us.      
–Sharon Lovejoy, author, illustrator & educator
San Luis Obispo, California

It was good to hear Tom’s voice one last time, but heartbreaking to hear the message. How brave he was, to try to mine some sense out of this horrible disease.
–Charles Voigt, faculty, herbal event planner
College of Agriculture, University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

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