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franklin county times

Sam Warf: From Tennessee to the White House and beyond

FRANKLIN LIVING MARCH-APRIL 2024

When people picture the floral business, they might imagine someone standing behind a counter sticking stems in a vase, but for local florist Sam Warf, the business – combined with other cherished pursuits and passions – has been a lifelong adventure. In reflecting on his life, including 58 years of designing, he can’t help but remember the many dozens of unique experiences he’s had through his forays into cooking, interior design and floristry.

“Everything was an adventure, and I’ve gotten to do a lot of traveling to other countries,” explained Warf, owner and operator of Sam’s Flowers in downtown Russellville. “I guess the best part of my job has been being able to go to different countries and experience their cultures.”

TENNESSEE BEGINNINGS

From growing up in Memphis and becoming friends with Elvis Presley, to providing flowers over three presidencies at the White House during a span of 15 years, and more, Warf has collected a wide range of experiences, as well as gifts and other souvenirs, including a ring Elvis gave him. Elvis used to visit Warf’s Whiteville, Tenn., farm, which Warf still owns, and ride horses in the ’60s.

“He was a very nice gentleman,” Warf said in recalling Elvis. “My grandmother and Elvis’ mother were good friends. We became friends first and foremost, and I did flowers for special occasions for him at Graceland when I could, and Grandmother would go out there to visit Mrs. Gladys, his mother, so we just became good friends, and he was always giving rings away. If you know anything about Elvis, you know he was always very free-hearted.”

He also cooked for movie star Sybil Shepherd, who he met at a party in Memphis back when “Memphis used to be just a small town.”

THE WHITE HOUSE

Warf got his start with the Florist Transworld Delivery Association, also known as FTD. “I have a master’s degree from FTD, and they choose 130 people over the whole United States to come up and help with the White House decorations at Christmas, and I was chosen twice,” Warf explained.

After that, Barbara Bush asked him to come back to help with some state dinners. One day, while he was working on a banquet, she brought cookies down, and he suggested she let him bake cookies the next time she needed some. She invited him to make some cookies right then, and, after that, he started cooking “every once in a while” at the White House – not only cookies but also full meals.

“Most of the cooking I did while I was working in the White House was for Bill and Hillary and Tipper and Al,” Warf explained, “because they enjoyed Southern cooking. I still make the Bill Clinton coconut cake. That was his favorite. And I always had to have a meatloaf made and in the refrigerator at all times for him. He loved meatloaf sandwiches.”

Warf said what he liked best about working at the White House was all the different people he got to talk to, even though he was working “always in the background.” “I would say Barbara Bush was the most down-home First Lady,” he continued, “but all of them were nice, though Barbara was the sweetest. The rest of them were nice, too, but they were busy.”

He referred to the two Bushes as “Daddy Bush” and “Baby Bush,” recalling the senior Bush once calling him “Uncle Sam.”

Warf said there were usually 35 people on staff at all times. “At Christmastime, they bring in from 130-140 people, somewhere along in there, and everything is pretty much organized,” he added.
He said floral designer Rusty Young was the coordinator at the time – ordering everything, making the first centerpiece or doing something else depending on the activity. “It was a production,” Warf recalled. “I was pretty much carrying out a vision of what he wanted.”

Sometimes if there were leftover flowers, Warf said he would make an arrangement and carry it up to The Residence. “We were not allowed on the floor until after 9 p.m., and all the flowers had to be changed out about 3 a.m.” Warf said there were 35 cut arrangements placed in the White House at any given time, with a lot more when there were banquets or other special occasions. “There’s lots of fresh greenery, trees, all that kind of stuff – it’s all over the White House, and Rusty was in charge of that,” Warf noted.

Warf even got to ride on Air Force One sometimes, and the Clintons and Gores went to his home in Bolivar, Tenn., where he cooked for them.

WANGS INTERNATIONAL

He also worked for Wangs International, located in Memphis, designing products for them to sell overseas, mainly in China. The company had a wholesale company as well as retail stores. “That was my first trip to mainland China, around 1968 or 1970,” Warf explained, “when I worked for that company. I liked the food there, and the people were hospitable. They were all very gracious.”

Warf said he enjoyed the items they worked on while he was employed at Wangs.

“We created a clown doll design for Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and I still have it. It was featured in one of the Neiman Marcus Christmas magazines,” he explained, adding several of the pieces he designed while there also hold fond memories for him, including a reindeer, a wreath, a swag and a flower vase that were all part of the same collection. He still has several of the pieces from that collection in his home. “We were at a factory in Sebu, China, designing these home décor items.”

After working at Wangs part time, off and on for about 10 years, Warf opened one flower shop and a bridal salon, and then he opened Sam’s Flowers – all in Memphis. He later sold both of his stores to Carl Kirkland of the Kirkland’s chain.

RUSSELLVILLE

It was after he began working off and on at the White House, going back and forth, when Russellville came into the picture. Warf joined Distinctive Designs, where he stayed for five years, working as production manager and a designer, managing around 78 employees.

“Out of all of the products that went out of Distinctive, I was responsible for the Waterlook area,” he said. “I helped Emma Hoffman design the products and arrangements. It was her company. She was the head designer.”

He also had a cooking television show at a Christian station after working there and was a longtime contributor for the Franklin County Times and Franklin Living, sharing his gardening tips and recipes with readers far and wide.

MISSISSIPPI

“The fun part came when I moved to Greenwood, Miss., after that,” Warf said, “and began working for John Richard Collections, a home furnishing company selling everything to furnish a house except botanicals.”

Warf explained the 50,000 square foot building became his domain, where he was tasked with starting that particular division of John Richard. “I went to China for three months and bought and designed products, containers, flowers, trees and foliage. It was about a year and a half because I was just under contract for a year,” he added.

“I stayed an extra six months, then came back and hired all the people. We had 45 when I left working there, as well as six designers, creating the products. We had our own shipping, packaging and everything in a separate building. There was just a concrete floor when I started, and when I left, there was a company running.”

While he was there, he developed products including mirrors, lamps and picture frames, and the company opened a factory in Vietnam.

Throughout his career in design, he also wound up traveling to Hong Kong, Mexico, the Philippines, Germany, Portugal, India and Italy. In total, he traveled almost nine months getting the designs started and finding the companies to work with him for the collection.

CUSTOMER RECOLLECTIONS

He has a number of customers he’s made an impression on over the years.

“Sam did my flowers for my wedding, and he did a beautiful job,” said Jaime Oliver. “He’s sweet and kind and does a phenomenal job.”

Susan Hall said she and her family have done business with him since his arrival in Russellville. “What I remember most about Sam is that I had two children get married within six months of each other – one in Brandon, Miss., quite a distance from Russellville, but nothing else would do: My son wanted Sam to do his flowers for the rehearsal dinner and reception, and he did.” Hall said when her daughter got married in Florence six months later, she wanted him to do the whole church and reception in sunflowers. “He came through for her, and we were very pleased with that. He’s a professional in every way. He always pleases, and I don’t have to worry because it’s as good as done.”

Katernia Cole Coffey said Warf has always gone “over and beyond” to meet the needs of whatever program she’s been part of, to make sure there are beautiful decorations. “His level of expertise – you know you’ve got somebody great at what they’re doing when they’ve worked for the White House because they don’t just have anyone do their floral decorations.”

“With Sam, it’s personal,” Coffey added. “It’s not just a flower in a container. He’s someone who takes pride in what he’s doing and puts forth the effort needed. He cares about making customers happy.”

MOVING FORWARD

After 58 years of designing flowers, Warf has decided to quit working 70-80 hours per week and instead work around 30-40 hours per week so he can do some traveling and enjoy gardening.

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