Home & Garden

Wichita gardeners will miss Ron Matney

Mark Matney, owner of Tree Top Nursery, saw his father in the best of times and — right before his father died Thursday morning — in the worst, Mark said Thursday afternoon.

It hardly mattered what the situation was for Mark's father, Ron Matney, who founded Tree Top.

"He was still the most optimistic, kind-hearted" man, Mark said. "Truly it always amazed me how he could always be positive. And it occurred to me: Look at the industry he's in. What is a gardener? A gardener is an eternal optimist looking forward to spring."

Mr. Matney died Thursday morning of complications from an illness. He was 69 years old.

Gardeners love Tree Top for its plants, but many of them also knew Mr. Matney and loved his presence at the nursery. Following a stroke 15 years ago he eventually was in a wheelchair but he came to the nursery almost every day, Mark said. He was there as recently as last week, Janie Fielding of Tree Top said.

"There are many who will miss him greatly," Janie said.

There will be a visitation from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Broadway Mortuary. The funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Evangel Assembly of God, 11444 W. 21st St.

Mr. Matney founded Tree Top with the late Connie Mills in 1975.

"I remember the first time I went to it — it was just a trailer house and you had to walk on some muddy wood planks" to get to the door, retired extension agent Norman Warminski said. "And now it has grown into this multimillion-dollar business because of his foresight. ... They specialize in larger material for more of that instant gratification."

Mr. Matney was born in Arkansas and was always a plant person, Mark said. He started out as a propagator. After he moved to Wichita he grew trees and other nursery stock and worked as a landscape designer at the now-closed Sunnyside Nursery before starting his own business.

Tree Top was always a mainstay of the now-closed Wichita Garden Show.

"For years it was Sunnyside Nursery and Tree Top — they did all of the gardens and they would do like two each and they did wonderful gardens," said Alex Lingg, who was manager of the show.

"He had a love for the industry, a love for the people. Ron was somebody that when you had a chance to talk to him you never missed it."

He also had a great love for his family. Mr. Matney's survivors include his wife, Erma, and their four children.

Buddy Shannon, director of Real Men, Real Heroes, a Wichita nonprofit that mentors youths, says he owes his success to Mr. Matney.

The two met at church 26 years ago, when Buddy was 24, and Mr. Matney became like a father to Buddy. So when Mr. Matney was ready to start the landscape maintenance part of his business and asked Buddy to head it up, 17 years into his career at Raytheon Aircraft, Buddy said yes. Not because he wanted a new job, but because he wanted to work for Mr. Matney.

"Ron was a real man's man," Buddy said. "If there was ever a real-life John Wayne, it was Ron Matney. He was a man of strong conviction and faith.

"He was very honest and he taught us to respect our customers and our workers and to treat every man the way we wanted to be treated."

Buddy has received awards including the President's Call to Service Award from President George W. Bush and the Big Brother of the Year award.

"None of those would have been possible without Ron Matney's mentorship and the Christian role model that he was."

For many years Mr. Matney was known as "the Kansas Gardener" for his thrice-weekly appearances on KSN, Channel 3. It was actually from seeing him on the show that a physician-customer of his saw symptoms of what turned out to be a tumor on his pituitary gland, Mark said. Once that tumor was removed, the effects of a stroke that Mr. Matney suffered 15 years ago started manifesting themselves, and he eventually had to be in a wheelchair, Mark said.

After that, "sometimes people start feeling sorry for themselves and start telling you about their aches and pains," Norman said. With Mr. Matney, "never once. Even this year, every day I would ask him how he was, and it was all smiles. Everything was a positive."

Said Mark: "Through everything to the point where you're completely dependent on everyone for everything, the man was smiling and generous and loving and kind and the most optimistic man I ever met." Mark took over the business from his father seven or eight years ago and runs it with his sister Melette and her husband, Jeff Brown.

"It's the state-of-the-art nursery," Alex said. Mr. Matney "created that. And that discipline: The vehicles were clean, the people were respectful, they did really good work: That came from Ron. It was what he expected.

"Everything about it is top. And that's what Ron was."