Topeka Capital-Journal – 1999
CHESAPEAKE, Va. — George and Calema Abdow and their five children were neighbors of ours for about 10 years when we lived in Kensington, Md., and during that time we saw them go from near financial ruin to riches. More specifically, they went from a busted fast food franchise to the beginnings of a business empire, and they did it the hard way.
George started over by selling flowers on a street corner in downtown Washington, D.C. By the time we moved back to Kansas he was the dominant figure in this end of the business, with other vendors working for him all over D.C. and into Maryland and Virginia. In the years that followed he became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, flower wholesaler in the area.
When we first met them in 1961, George had just closed his restaurant, and was getting ready to hit the street with flowers. He did it without complaining, and it wasn’t too long before he had little to complain about. He took to flowers like Wrigley took to chewing gum, and like Post took to Toasties.
George had a brother, Vic, who owned a flower shop on Wisconsin Avenue and specialized in furnishing flowers to the nearby embassies, so maybe it was Vic who gave George the idea of selling them on the street. However it happened, it worked.
On George’s corner there was a bank, and it had a convenient ledge around the outside that was perfect for displaying a lot of flowers. It also had a room in its basement for a walk-in cooler, which George later installed so he could stock more flowers and keep them fresh.
He bought his flowers wherever he could, and Vic probably helped a lot there. Often George bought flowers starting to wilt, and he would bring them back to life by clipping off the discolored parts of petals, or spray-painting them. He would mix old and fresh flowers and, wrapped in a bundle, they’d pass cursory inspection.
My wife, Barbara, and I spent some evenings in the Abdow kitchen, helping prepare for a big flower day, such as Valentine’s Day or Secretary’s Day. We’d clip and wrap flowers in paper cones, ready for the retail market. They smelled even better than Calema’s cooking, which is saying something.
Business kept getting better, and before long George had other vendors on other corners working for him. He bought out a wholesaler and soon needed panel trucks to supply his network. He got bigger and bigger, and when he died a couple of years ago he was a wealthy man. His sons run the business now, and I hear it’s as strong as ever.
Shortly after George died, Calema’s health went downhill, and she later was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As her condition got worse, her children put her in the plushest assisted living home in the area. It makes a five-star hotel look shabby, and while we were in Washington, Barbara and I went to see her.
When we found her in the Alzheimer’s wing of the home, she gave no indication she recognized us. George’s sister, Alice, also is a resident there, and we sat in a lounge with the two of them. My wife did a great job of trying to carry on a conversation, but Calema didn’t speak. She stared at Barbara, then at me, and then at nothing.
Barbara was wearing glasses, and happened to take them off when Calema was looking at her. Suddenly, Calema came alive, smiled and said, “Barbara.”
That was it for the whole visit, but those few seconds made it all worthwhile. It was an emotional experience between two old friends, and maybe Calema was tuned in to more than we thought.
I made another visit, not so emotional, but pretty awesome. Roye Weeks, an executive in the production department of the Washington Post, the newspaper Richard Nixon made famous, is a friend of our son Steve, and he took us on a tour of the Post’s new printing plant in Maryland. Here’s some of what I saw:
Four new 96-page printing presses, each five stories high and capable of printing 50,000 or more papers an hour, and so automated they all can be run by eight pressmen.
A warehouse bigger than a football field, with a railroad siding in one end delivering newsprint made from trees owned by the Post, grown on land owned by the Post and processed in a plant partly owned by the Post, all in Nova Scotia. Rolls of paper are stacked five high all over the place, and if the top one fell it would hit like a 2,000-pound bomb.
Once a roll is placed on a rack, ready for the presses, it’s not touched by a human. Automatically, its bar code is scanned to see, for instance, if it’s a left-hand or right-hand roll, and where it belongs, and then it’s delivered and put on the press by rolling robots. You have to see it to believe it.
On all newspapers, there is an ongoing argument about when to start the press, and when to stop it to get in a late score or story. Post pressmen are typical, wanting to start the press and keep it going. They scornfully call any story that stops the press a “late-breaking recipe.”