Godmother of Louisiana Irises was 94, by Richard Sloan
Marie Caillet has died at age 94. She had been declining for a while, and death came on Thursday, May 20, 2010. She was a founder of the Society for Louisiana Irises (SLI), and for decades the contact of the Society with the public. She published many articles in gardening magazines, was editor of the society newsletter for two decades, and she collaborated with Joe Mertzweiller in publishing a number of special publications and articles about Louisiana irises, and the first hard bound book on the topic. She later worked with Kevin Vaughan, Farron Campbell, and Dennis Vercher to publish the second edition. She carried on extensive correspondence with anyone who inquired about the irises and many of the interesting short articles in her newsletters resulted from that correspondence.
Before the time of most of us she had many other positions in the Society and in American Iris Society. As the years passed, she limited herself to SLI affairs, and her north Texas property became a destination for travelers from throughout America and as far away as Australia. Many hybridizers had her evaluate their seedlings and knew they would receive an unbiased, frank opinion. She won many awards at shows sponsored by the Iris Society of Dallas, and those wins advertised that Louisianas would grow well in the area. She donated to various university research programs and to SLI for publications, etc. Five Louisiana irises have been named in honor of Marie over the years
Marie was the last living sibling of a group of 5 daughters and one son of Fleury Paul and Laura Riehn Caillet. Her dad was a nephew of famous botanist Julien Reverchon, who has a plant genus and several species named for him. Reverchon came as a boy from France to the socialist colony La Reunion, founded in the Dallas area in 1858, arriving after it had collapsed. Marie said too many intellectuals with no idea how to hold a hoe or do anything useful didn't have a chance. Marie's dad was born in the La Reunion area where some of the colonists continued to live, and when six, moved with his family to a tract ofland on Lovers Lane in Dallas County north of Dallas, where he lived for the next 61 years and where Marie was born. She was a twin and said the doctor who delivered her and her sister, told those present he didn't think the smaller one would live. Wrong!
Marie's family was not well off but her father and a Mrs. Kirk bought open property on what is now Lake Lewisville in 1929. It became a family fishing camp and they drove up from Dallas across fields to the site on weekends. The original camp burned and Mr. Caillet, who was a home builder, constructed a number of summer homes along the lake, some later owned by family members---only one or two of which survive and they have had major alterations and expansions.
Marie graduated from Texas Woman's University in Denton, and after a short time in junior college teaching, went to Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, La. in 1941, when the campus still had dirt streets. She taught clothing and textiles for 33 years. She had planned to remain in Lafayette after retirement, but she had an opportunity to buy a cottage on Lake Lewisville. Marie expanded the place twice and moved to it on retirement. Her famous pond was dug by her dad for minnows, and the sides were lined with rocks brought up from the lake shore by her and her siblings. Older sister, Shirley, "Aunt Shirley," a retired Dallas school principal and her husband, lived across the street on the lake. Shirley was more interested in bearded irises.
Dr. Ira Nelson came to the Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette at the same time as Marie. He became a Louisiana iris champion, and the force behind the foundation of SLI, originally known as the Mary Swords DeBaillon Native Iris Society, when it was formed in 1941. Marie was recruited to take minutes at the first meeting, and became the foundation rock for decades until age decreased her physical abilities, if not her mind.
I met Marie when I moved to southern California in 1975, joined the local area iris society, learned I couldn't grow the bearded nor Siberian irises I'd grown in northern Illinois. So, I began growing Louisianas, and started to write articles for the Southern California Iris Society publication. Marie read them, wrote and asked if she could use some in the SLI newsletter and so our association started.
Marie said that early DeBaillon medal winners were sometimes decided by as few votes as a half dozen. She enjoyed seeing the evolution of the Louisiana iris from early collecting in swamps, to the beginning of hybridization, to the modem era with more substanced, ruffled, flowers with a wider range of flower shapes and palette of colors.
Marie's extensive papers, including detailed scrapbooks she had kept for years, are a part of the SLI Archives at Dupree Library at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her anecdotes of all the hybridizers and other persons associated with SLI were often side splitting, making one wish for the future when the content of a brain may be downloaded to preserve it forever. No such luck, A unique person has left us, and we are much reduced for the loss. Inevitably, within too few years she will become a name in the records, and her wit and knowledge will be forgotten. This is indeed a sad time for those of us who knew and loved Miss Marie Caillet.