ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Each year, a Marion County senior citizen is chosen to be honored at a Senior Fair sponsored by the North Central-Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging.
The distinction this year went to gardener Margaret Jirak, 80, of rural Tampa, who was chosen as senior Grand Gardener of Marion County.
“She’s an outstanding senior,” said Noreen Weems with the Marion County Department for Elderly.
“She was chosen Marion County’s Grand Gardener for her many years of gardening.”
On Sept. 16, Jirak joined 17 other county representatives honored by the North Central-Flint Hills AAA at the Senior Fair, a one-day event held in the Salina Bicentennial Building.
Gardening has been a part of her life for the past 63 years, beginning when she and husband Leo started farming, housekeeping and gardening on 80 acres located only a quarter mile from where she grew up.
Her husband Leo passed away six years ago, but Jirak continues the couple’s gardening tradition by selling fresh produce from the side yard of her home and at a local farm and art market.
“I’m so thankful I can get around as well as I can, because a lot of people younger than me can’t do that,” Jirak said.
“And I can go out in the garden and work for hours.”
This year, Jirak planted lettuce, radishes, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and sweet corn-all sown on a garden area located east of her farm house. She shares about two acres of garden plot with son Ron, who has expanded his produce business.
In the yard to the west of the house, she also maintains a small flower garden with such colorful blooms as marigolds, morning glories, zinnias, impatiens and geraniums.
A large blue sign at the front of the home displays the words “Jirak Bros. Produce,” and the wooden board has a place to list the vegetables available at any given time of the growing season.
The sign is a testament to a time when Leo and his brothers worked together in the produce-growing truck-farm business.
Jirak was employed as a substitute bus driver at various times while her husband drove on a regular basis for 40 years. She and Leo retired from that work in 1985.
But through those years, substituting was something she could do while raising a large family-today numbering seven boys, five girls, 37 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
When growing season approaches, Jirak helps plant and continues to work in her garden, located right next to her son’s planting area beside the house.
They keep two distinct plots-preventing any confusion of produce ownership-but share in maintenance and cultivation.
Watering is taken care of with an automated watering system.
“I do some weeding, especially mine,” Jirak said. She is also involved with harvesting but has help loading the produce into the trucks heading to markets.
“I go every Saturday to Marion and sell,” Jirak said.
“People call it Farmer’s Market, but it really isn’t organized as such. I take one of my grandchildren with me, because I can’t crawl in the truck and get the things out.”
By the third week in September, she stops selling at market and has very little produce left to sell at her home.
But during the busy season, as many as four customers pull up her driveway on any given day.
The arrival of a customer is announced by a bell located in the house. But that doesn’t mean that Jirak has to stop what she’s doing and go out to see what they want every time the bell rings.
“I don’t always go out when I’m busy in here,” Jirak said.
“There’s a can out there, and they put their money in,” referring to a Folger’s coffee can located on a picnic table in the backyard.
“We’ve done that ever since my husband was doing it.”
In addition to her garden activities, she is a life member of the St. Luke Hospital Auxiliary, a member of her church altar society and in her third year on the Senior Citizens of Marion County Board of Directors.
In early fall, she and another senior were nominated for the honor of Grand Gardener at a board meeting, and Jirak was chosen.
And her reaction to receiving the distinction among her peers?
“Well, of course, you get excited about it,” Jirak said.
She wasn’t alone when she spent the day at the senior fair. The trip to the event was spent with other seniors on a chartered bus. And some of her family members drove to Salina to be by her side during the presentation, too.
Among family members at her honored table sat daughter Flo Rahn, son Francis and his wife, Mary, son-in-law Jesse Brunner and son Ron.
As the Marion County representative at the fair, she received a carnation corsage and a plaque.
The plaque included an inspirational poem reminding those who receive and read it that life resembles a garden-where joys and sorrows sprout together, where challenges are met and like the chore of daily weeding, life is faced without regret.
During a ceremony at noon, each Grand Gardener at the fair was presented on a large video screen and recognized in front of the audience.
This was Jirak’s third year at the senior fair and the first time honored as outstanding senior.
In addition to her gardening and outside activities, Jirak is at home among photos of her children and grandchildren, a collection of 56 clocks, a large collection of more than 400 refrigerator magnets and a personal computer.
The computer is used to keep in touch with her extended family through e-mails, and it’s also handy for making greeting cards.
Future plans include staying on her homestead and enjoying her gardening-because personal satisfaction comes from planting and seeing the fruits of her labor, Jirak said.
“And I’d rather be outside than inside.”