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Life came up roses for Clarence White after he went to work at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, where he became an expert on 1,000 varieties.

White was an assistant gardener for 20 years until he died July 16 at 74. Colleagues recall him generously sharing his expertise about tea roses and shrub roses with visitors to the arboretum.

It was the final, and to White the most satisfying, step in a career that started in farming and wound through industrial and warehouse jobs.

"His earliest memories were following his dad in the fields, pulling weeds and planting, so digging in dirt has always been his nature," said Mary Christensen White, his friend and former wife. "It's where he found serenity."

At the arboretum, he was considered a role model for his work ethic. "He really helped and nurtured the younger interns we had on staff," said Steve Van Natta, the horticulture manager. "People were really attracted by his enthusiasm and his overall knowledge of roses and he made work fun."

Horticulturist Ted Pew recalled White's sense of humor during the seasonal transitions to "tip roses," burying them for the winter, then lifting them out of trenches during spring, a challenging process to keep them alive because of their delicate nature.

"When somebody would be lifting a tea rose and we would hear a crack he would say, 'You don't have to come back to work at this garden!''' Pew said.

White wanted to garden at the arboretum until he was 75 and nearly made his goal, Pew said.

White's daughter recently graduated from college, a first in his family, and he was able to see her diploma before he passed away from cancer. His illness was diagnosed only weeks before he died, Christensen White said.

Clarence Lee White was born in Laurel, Miss., in 1948 to Norman and Olevia Raine White and relocated to Gary, Ind., with his parents at an early age.

At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Arm, 101st Airborne Division, specializing in air assault operations while serving in Vietnam.

The Army recognized White for his honorable service with several medals including the Purple Heart, Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, a National Defense Service Medal and an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

After his military service, he moved to the Minneapolis area, Christensen White said.

Besides gardening, White had many passions. He loved reggae and jazz and artists such as John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder. He was an avid sports fan following the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Cubs among other teams. He also kept up with friends from throughout his life, dating back to grade school.

He is survived by daughter Corrine White; siblings Anthony Tony White and Theresa Washington; five grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

Services have been held.