by Kelly Simmons
Born in New York City and raised in the New Jersey suburbs, Jane Seddon was the only child of a first generation American. Her father’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from England and Ireland, while her mother’s family goes back to Colonial times. Her father was a fire insurance adjuster, while her mother cared for the home. When she was 17 the family moved to Macon, Ga. As a teenager, she attended Emma Willard, a girl’s preparatory school in Troy, N.Y. From there, she continued her education at Wellesley College.
She was a freshman at Wellesley when she met Harry Willson in the winter of 1941. They were introduced by a mutual friend on a train platform in New York and both boarded an overnight train to Atlanta for the Christmas holiday. The next morning, Jane was in the dining car when Harry, who was in his first year at Harvard Business School, came in for breakfast.
“He just sat down and he never left,” Jane recalls.
They were an item upon returning to Boston after the holiday and Harry proposed during Jane’s junior year, presenting her with a diamond from his mother’s engagement ring.
“We went to Shreve, Crump & Low, jewelers in Boston, had it set and picked out a wedding ring to match,” Jane says.
Then Harry, who joined the Navy after graduating from Harvard, shipped out to Saipan for two years.
They married in May 1946 in Steubenville, Ohio, took a six-week honeymoon traveling the east coast in Jane’s mother’s car, and then settled in Atlanta, living with Harry’s mother for a year. There were no apartments available in Atlanta in the mid-1940s.
While Harry worked as a business consultant, Jane attended classes at the High Museum of Art. Two years later, their son Bill was born, followed by Larry in 1950.
It was in Atlanta, in 1948, that they first got the idea to sell pecans by mail. At the time, Harry’s mother owned an 1,800-acre pecan orchard in Albany that Harry’s dad had purchased in the 1920s. The Atlanta Wellesley Club asked if Jane could get one pound bags of pecan halves from the Willson farm to sell as a fundraiser.
“Harry said, ‘If we do it for the Wellesley Club we might as well do it for ourselves,’ ” Willson remembers.
That year they put a small ad in the New York Times, advertising boxes of shelled and unshelled pecans sold by mail. In February of 1951, with 21-month-old Bill and 3-month-old Larry in tow, they moved to Albany to begin working the pecan orchard.
Two weeks into the fall harvest at Sunnyland Farms, the employees parking lot is full, with permanent and seasonal employees doing everything from clearing limbs and brush in the orchard to steering bulky machines between trees to collect the nuts to packing them in boxes to mail.
They’re focusing on the Desirables right now, one of the larger, most popular of the varieties grown at Sunnyland. It’s a good season for Georgia pecans. They’ve begun harvesting earlier than usual and are expecting a bumper crop.
“The growing season was just about perfect this year,” says Larry Willson, who came on board in 1978 to manage the orchard and shelling plant.
Many of the 55 fulltime employees have built careers at Sunnyland and its sister company, Willson Farming. Many of the seasonal workers—about 150 at the peak of the harvest—also return to the farm each year.
Johnnie Mae Teemer, an assistant vice president, recently celebrated her 41st anniversary with Sunnyland. She joined the company at age 18 and now manages the packing and shipping departments.
“When she came here she didn’t have a lot of confidence,” says Teresa Barbre, assistant to Willson and herself an employee of 29 years who has worked nearly every job in the company. “Mrs. Willson believed in her. She knew Johnnie Mae could do things she didn’t think she could do. Mr. and Mrs. Willson are very generous people. They pay employees well and give them good benefits. People don’t stay at places they don’t care about. It really is a family.”
Willson’s dedication to her staff is evident in the company catalog, which she pens herself each year. Thumbnail photos at the bottom of each page give customers a little personal knowledge of the farm and the people who work there.
It was years after Jane and Harry moved to Albany that the pecan business began making money. They had so few customers at first that Harry threatened to stop it altogether.
“I told him, ‘If it makes us $50, that’s $50 we didn’t have,’ ” Jane says.
They had two more children—Arthur in 1954 and Jane in 1959. Harry did other things to make money, growing seed crops and working as an accountant during tax season. He invested in stocker steer, which he let graze in the crimson clover that covered the pecan groves in winter.
Though both Harry and Jane had learned to appreciate art and music, they had no money to enjoy either during those early years. In 1962, Jane decided they deserved a treat and bought tickets for two performances to the New York Metropolitan Opera, which toured in Atlanta each spring.
“I said, ‘I am so tired of being poor,’ ” she recalls. “I farmed out the boys to friends and took little Jane to Atlanta to Harry’s mother. I got out my favorite evening dresses and we went for two nights. We went every year after that.”
The Willsons later would have season tickets to the opera in Atlanta, and Jane now sits on The Atlanta Opera board.
By 1967, the couple was at a crossroads. They were not making enough money to cover their costs and would have to greatly expand the business if they wanted it to work. “We either get in or we get out,” Jane remembers Harry saying. “We opted to get in.”
They increased their mailing list each year after that and in 1970 moved their customer records from 3-by-5 index cards to a computer. That year they also upgraded from a two-color flyer to a full-color, 24-page catalog. By 1973, they were making money. The company continued to grow. Harry and Jane began doing things they couldn’t afford in the earlier years. In 1973, they took their first overseas trip, which was to Africa, visiting the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania. In 1980, they climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. They were the oldest people on the trip.
They became increasingly active in their community. From 1964-72, Harry was a member of the Dougherty County Board of Commissioners. Following that, he was appointed to the Phoebe Putney Hospital Authority Board and held the position of chairman for 31 years, resigning in April 2004, just months before his death. The hospital board honored him in 1994 by naming its board room the Harry Willson Board Room and in 2004 by naming its drive Harry Willson Way.
“He was the person with vision,” Jane says.
She too has been an active public servant, serving on “just about every board in Albany.”
She was on vacation in Scotland in 1986 when the chancellor of the Board of Regents called and asked her to serve on a search committee for the next UGA president.
“You said yes, didn’t you?” she recalls family members asking when she relayed the news.
That committee brought Charles Knapp to UGA, and launched the Willson’s support for the flagship school. Knapp invited Jane Willson to join the board of the UGA Foundation.
In the years that followed, Willson would become friends with Gary Bertsch, director of the Center for International Trade and Security in the Department of International Affairs, and Betty Jean Craige, director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, and would give generously to their programs. And while neither she nor Harry had attended UGA, their oldest son Bill attended the university’s law school, and two grandchildren are Georgia alumni. A third, Justin, will graduate in May 2008.
“Chuck Knapp did a good day’s work when he asked me to come aboard,” Willson says, grinning.
The sweet smell of milk chocolate fills the air in the Sunnyland kitchen, as workers place pecan bark onto plastic trays to harden. Pecan clusters, individually wrapped and packaged, are the biggest seller, but pecan logs and pralines also are popular as are fruitcakes, prepared from a family recipe. In addition to candy, Sunnyland also sells dried fruit and other nuts purchased from growers across the country. On this October day, the truck bringing raisins and almonds from California is late. The driver calls from Little Rock, Ark., to find out which highway to take into town. “Call me back before 5,” Virginia Tucker tells him, “and I’ll have a better idea of where you are and how to get you here.”
Tucker’s been with the company for 34 years, serving first as Harry’s assistant and now Jane’s. When she began talking about retirement a few years back, Willson told her: “I’m sorry Virginia, but you can’t go until I go.”
And Willson is not even close to leaving the business.
“My goodness, what would I do?” she says. “I’d have to find another job.”