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‘Flower Lady of Great Lakes’ spread happiness

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Arlene Earl was known among the Great Lakes maritime community as “The Flower Lady.”

The longtime Harsens Island resident spent years sending floral bouquets to boaters — a tradition that grew from her generosity.

“It just got to be a pattern in her life of giving,” said her sister, Linda Engel Washburn. “She just loved the glory, the happiness it would bring.”

Mrs. Earl died Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, after battling health issues. She was 78.

Her legendary ritual was rooted in water-related routines.

When her husband’s uncle lived with the couple at their home near the St. Clair River, the retired engineer longed for the passing boats to acknowledge him, Washburn recalled. “So Arlene wrote a letter to 40 or 60 ship captains and asked if they would salute this man waving on South Channel.”

In time, the salutes started — delighting the uncle and prompting Mrs. Earl to thank them by sending flowers from the Detroit shop she ran, her sister said.

But also considering how the sailors frequently were away from home, she began having mums and other flowers delivered on Father’s Day and Christmas as well as other holidays.

Appreciation bloomed among the recipients. “She has scrapbooks of thank you notes on how it touched their hearts,” Washburn said. “It was a symbol of family they didn’t have on their ships until they got back home.”

Some went to ships associated with the Interlake Steamship Co., which expressed its condolences this week.

“We are saddened to share that the final bells have rung for Arlene Earl, the Flower Lady of the Great Lakes,” officials wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “She’s held a special place in the hearts of our mariners for more than three decades. She brightened our ships with flowers and we honored her generosity with countless salutes near her home on Harsens Island, below Buoy #13 on the St. Clair River. Three long and two short, Arlene. You will be missed.”

Born Arlene Engel on Oct. 26, 1938, she grew up in Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School.

For decades she manned her family’s business in the city, Chris Engel’s Greenhouse. Customers typically were showered with her kindness, said Rosemary Zuraw, a longtime friend. “She’d always give you something extra.”

That spirit colored her other encounters with strangers. Once, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Mrs. Engel thought “there wasn’t enough smiles, so she went and purchased roses and she passed them out to anybody who had a frown on their face,” Zuraw said.

Though she faced health challenges in recent years, Mrs. Engel kept saluting ships that passed her home and giving gifts to others.

“If she knew you needed something, she’d do it,” said Parisa Duchane, her former caregiver. “She was a very caring person. She was a rare and amazing woman.”

Survivors include her children, Christopher Earl, Deborah Kapanowski and Richard Earl; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and siblings Chris John Engel and Lorraine Williams. She was predeceased by her husband, Dick Earl.

Visitation is 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Paul’s, 208 Orchid Blvd., Harsens Island. A funeral follows at 6 p.m.

Private interment is at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.

Memorials may be made to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.