Gnaegy (first syllable like “nay”, second with a hard g) went down to the Miami-Dade Extension office when he saw that they had low-cost classes. All these years later, he calls it his own 'GI Bill.' A solid education from the state, offered up in return for his service to the nation.
He took 10 or more classes in horticulture. He accumulated a list of landscaping-related certifications and established Mix’d Greens in 1987.
That list came in handy when he included it in his bid in for his first county contracts. No one at the county knew him, so he wasn’t counting on being awarded the work. To his astonishment, he got a call from the county and the Homestead Air Reserve Base. It was the first of the many contracts on which he has built his business.
To this day, he insists the list was the key. “That’s how I got my business,” Gnaegy said. “You guys (UF/IFAS Extension) underwrote it.”
Gnaegy has more than paid it back. He’s been a longtime supporter of UF/IFAS Extension Miami-Dade County. He still serves on its advisory board as well as that of the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC).
Gnaegy took a closer look at TREC as the recent president of the FNGLA Miami-Dade Chapter. What he saw was a cobbler wearing shabby shoes. A hub of science to beautify Florida had a perimeter largely devoid of greenery.
It was instead encircled by what TREC Director Gilly Evans called a “prisoner’s fence.” So he asked Gnaegy about landscaping. Gnaegy first answered with his own question: How much do you need?
Then Gnaegy answered his own question. He showed up with enough poincianas and other ornamentals to dress up TREC. He also brought his own employees to do the installation. Evans didn’t even have to tell them where to install the landscaping.
Evans is still waiting for his first invoice from Gnaegy. Meanwhile, Gnaegy, an FNGLA member since before the “L” was added, doesn’t really ask questions anymore. He just keeps giving.
When I was at TREC’s recent One Night in the Tropics fundraiser, I got to visit with UF/IFAS Extension employees who were there because Gnaegy had bought their tickets. I saw the beautiful landscaping he had donated. I didn’t get into the student dorm, but I heard about the dartboard he bought and installed for the graduate students.
Last month at the Dade County Farm Bureau’s annual holiday party more than 20 Extension and research employees and graduate students were Gnaegy’s guests. He also recently sponsored lunch and awards for the South Florida Graduate Research Symposium.
Gnaegy says he doesn’t get out much these days. He’s 70 now, and just stepped down after his three-year hitch as Chapter President. But TREC and the Extension office are right down the street from him in Homestead, and he especially enjoys visiting with young people working on science.
He explains what he gets out of it in his wry, raspy way: the graduate students inspire him to let down his curmudgeon instincts and believe the world can be saved.
In the last six years Gnaegy and Evans have worked together to improve TREC, Gnaegy has contributed an estimated $75,000 or more in plants and labor. He’s not feeding the world, but with all those ticket purchases he is feeding the people who will some day.
Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).