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Robert Thomson; broadened appeal of 'Victory Garden'

As the longtime host of television's longest running how-to program, Robert B. Thomson changed the face of garden television.

Mr. Thomson, 74, the retired host of WGBH's "The Victory Garden," and proprietor of the former Thomson's Nursery and Garden Center in Danvers, died Oct. 2 in Topsfield from the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

"Bob Thomson took a program that was focused on vegetables and flowers, and expanded it to landscape gardening -- a trend which today dominates gardening on TV -- at a time when no one else was doing it," said Russell Morash, former producer of "The Victory Garden."

"Bob also put the show on the road of environmentally sensitive gardening," added Roger Swain, who co-hosted "The Victory Garden" and is now host of the show "People, Places and Plants."

A committed ecologist, Mr. Thomson, who hosted the show from 1979 to 1991, felt it was especially important for the environment to introduce young people to gardening. He wrote "The Victory Garden Alphabet" for children. It included drawings of two of his grandchildren gardening, which he surprised them with on the day the book came out.

Mr. Thomson also wrote a garden column for the Boston Herald, had a gardening radio spot on WEEI for 32 years, and wrote "The New Victory Garden." He and his wife, Helen "Betty" E. (Riley), ran the Danvers garden center that bore their name from 1954 until 1988.

Mr. Thomson was born in Salem, the son of George B. and Margaret (Collins) Thomson. He graduated from Lynn English High School in 1949, and later was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. A US Army veteran, he served in the Army's security agency during the Korean War.

A 40-year resident of Danvers, he was active in civic life there and was named Citizen of the Year by the Danvers Community Council in 1973. Mr. Thomson was president of both the Danvers chapter of Rotary International and the Danvers YMCA. He was vice president of the New England Area YMCA and active with the Vestry of Calvary Episcopal Church. He also chaired the Danvers Conservation Commission and served on the board of the Essex County Agricultural Society.

Mr. Thomson was already a well-known gardening radio personality when he succeeded the immensely popular James Underwood Crockett of Concord as host of "The Victory Garden" upon Crockett's death in 1979. " `The Victory Garden' program had to take on new dimensions, so that it could be a proper fit for me because there never could be another Crockett," Mr. Thomson told the Globe with typical modesty in 1983. Mr. Thomson cohosted with other regional hosts, traveled widely, and gave the show a more national orientation.

During that period, the show's set relocated from its site next to the WGBH parking lot in Allston, where the station had installed an air-conditioning unit and trash-masher, to the Lexington Gardens nursery in Lexington, where Mr. Thomson appreciated the quiet. "We had to reshoot segments every time one of those machines kicked on," he told the Globe in a 1986 interview.

Kip Anderson, longtime gardener for "The Victory Garden," said Mr. Thomson did not let his fame go to his head.

"Who he was on the screen was who he really was," Anderson said. "He was very modest, very encouraging and appreciative. He's possibly the kindest man I've every met."

"Wow! Talk about patience!" said Swain. "When Bob toured and did personal appearances, he would answer everyone's questions, listen to their stories about gardening, and write entire, very personal paragraphs when he signed books. It was amazing. I've never seen anyone else do that."

Of all the plants he grew, Mr. Thomson once said tomatoes were his favorite. He grew two 20-foot rows of them at his Danvers home, where he also reserved a plot for gardening with his grandchildren.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Thomson leaves a daughter, Kathy Champlain of Middleton; two sons, Robert S. of Beverly and David B. of Danvers; a brother, Gordon of Danvers; a sister, Patricia Riley of Lynn; and nine grandchildren.

The funeral service was held yesterday at Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers. Burial was in the Puritan Lawn Memorial Park in Peabody.

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