Buckeye trailblazer

Buckeye trailblazer
Blindness has never stopped Floyd Poruban
Floyd Poruban.  Photo by Ken Chamberlain.
Floyd Poruban. Photo by Ken Chamberlain.

By Matt Marx

He learned how to type at age 9. He drove a tractor and plowed fields on his family farm when he was 11.

And as a high schooler in the 1950s, Poruban used to assemble 1,000 tomato baskets per week while working for a greenhouse operator in Sheffield Village, Ohio. As his responsibilities expanded, he developed an interest in plants. That interest led to his becoming the first blind person to be admitted to and graduate from a science program at The Ohio State University, followed by his career in the nursery industry.

A 2019 recipient of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) Distinguished Alumni Award, Poruban had begun studying horticulture in 1957—decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990—during an era when few educational opportunities were available to blind people.

Poruban made scientific discoveries on the way to earning a BS in horticulture and an MS in plant pathology at Ohio State, both at CFAES. Then he opened a successful nursery of his own and has been in business for 55 years.

Growing up with ‘good luck, fresh air, exercise, and sunshine’

With vision of 20-250 in one eye and 20-270 in the other, Poruban was considered legally blind. His parents started to notice problems when he was a toddler growing up in Lorain, Ohio.

“In 1942, doctors said, ‘There’s not much we can do. He has less than 10% vision.’ Good luck, fresh air, exercise, and sunshine is the best thing they could suggest, so my folks looked for a place in the country,” said Poruban.

Floyd Poruban's 1958 yearbook photo.

His parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they found an acre plot in Avon, Ohio, home to a thriving greenhouse industry, in spring 1945.

Poruban could make out some things but was unable to read the newspaper and never has driven a car, he said.

But he could see enough to safely drive the family’s tractor on the wide-open spaces of their property, taking care to avoid the farm animals, beehives, and a bordering gulley. As Poruban grew older, he also tended the family’s animals: a cow, a horse, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and hundreds of budgie parakeets.

Avon Public Schools weren’t equipped to handle blind students at the time, so Poruban attended Boone Elementary School, then Hawthorne Junior High School, both in Lorain. A regional transit bus was arranged to take him to and from school.

Every morning, a bus picked him up in front of his house and took him to the center of Avon, where he would cross a state highway and transfer to another bus that took him on a 15-mile drive to Lorain. From there, Poruban then walked six blocks to get to school.

Poruban would attend the regular classrooms and listen to the teachers, then he would return to a sight-saving class where low-vision students received help in completing their assignments or reading large-print books.

He learned how to type on a standard Bulletin-font typewriter from a teaching assistant. There was no Braille typewriter in the class.

“I couldn’t see the type. … I just learned the mechanics of typing,” he said.

Poruban also took industrial arts in Lorain and learned about electrical circuits, built working electric motors, used both wood and industrial metal lathes, and learned welding and tool-tempering. However, the instructor refused to let him use the table saw for safety concerns.

‘Mainstreaming’ at Avon High School

“After the ninth grade, there were two choices: go to the blind school in Columbus, or they used the term ‘mainstreaming,’” he said.

Poruban listened intently to his teachers, and his classmates volunteered to read him assignments. Teachers gave him oral exams. He again took an industrial arts class, as was required. He made a three-drawer sewing chest for his mother that he still has today, he said.

“They encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. There were things that I did—even though I was blind or legally blind—that blew their minds”Floyd Poruban

Poruban took another typing class and was given the use of the football coach’s office to complete typing assignments. The football coach offered him a job putting away uniforms and supplies in his office. It evolved into Poruban’s becoming student manager for the football, basketball, and baseball teams.

“I would attend all of the games. I would take the first-aid kit out to the field and sit on the bench with the players,” he said. “I earned an athletic letter for it.”

On top of that, he was working for the Sheffield Village greenhouse operator, which fostered the interest in plants that led to his career path. He had started out folding and stapling tomato baskets, then he had moved onto weeding and other gardening jobs.

Throughout high school, the faculty, particularly the football and basketball coaches, supported him.

“They worked with me. They didn’t impede me,” he said. “They didn’t say, ‘Blind people can’t do that.’ They encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. There were things that I did—even though I was blind or legally blind—that blew their minds.”

At graduation, the coach, who also taught biology, gave Poruban a small box. Inside it was a 10-power tripod magnifying glass.

“He said, ‘This will come in handy when you go to college.’ The coaches knew I was going somewhere to advance my education,” he said.

On the Oval and in the field

Poruban later met Lewis C. Chadwick, already a longtime professor in the Department of Horticulture at Ohio State (now CFAES’ Department of Horticulture and Crop Science), and Chadwick convinced him to enroll there.

As was required of the male horticulture students, Poruban learned to climb trees with a rope and saddle.

Also, all horticulture students were required to be able to identify 1,000 different types of plants in Reisch’s course, and Poruban was no exception.

One day, students were having trouble distinguishing an American cranberrybush from a European cranberrybush. Though they were virtually identical, Poruban could tell the difference by touch, noting that one bush had sticky flowers while the other bush had dry flowers.

“The instructor just shook his head and said, ‘That’s not in the book.’”

After that class, Reisch studied the archives in the United States and Europe and consulted with other professors. When he finished all his investigating, “they ended up putting it in the book,” Poruban said.

After graduating, he decided to go to grad school because he couldn’t get a job.

“I applied to a lot of places. Nobody would hire blind people,” he said.

He paid for grad school by working as an assistant for C. Wayne Ellett in CFAES’ Department of Plant Pathology. Poruban prepared samples in the university’s new plant disease clinic, which is now named for Ellet.

For his graduate research, Poruban studied crown gall, a common plant disease formed by a type of Agrobacterium. Trying to decipher how the disease progressed was frustrating work, he said, until a chance meeting with Wernher von Braun, who worked for the U.S. Army and NASA. He suggested that Poruban use a high-powered ultracentrifuge in his research.

Poruban is credited as the first person to isolate the “tumor-inducing principle” that later came to be known as the Ti plasmid from an Agrobacterium in a plant system, work he conducted for his master’s thesis at Ohio State.

Floyd Poruban, his son Rich and his wife Ann. Photo by Ken Chamberlain.

“Science is in the mind, not the hands or eyes,” Poruban said.

Building a family business

Upon earning his master’s degree, Poruban sent out hundreds of resumes, but he said no one would hire a blind person.

So, he and his wife, Ann, started The Poruban Nursery in 1964. He applied for a vendor’s license and started his business propagating for other nurseries. Eventually, people asked him to design their landscapes and lay sod. He hired other people, and the business kept growing.

He had been operating out of a small greenhouse, and it had become overcrowded. He needed more space.

Poruban applied to the federal government for a loan so he could purchase land, but he was told that the government could not loan money to a blind farmer, despite his education. Not even a character reference written by John T. Mount, who was Ohio State’s vice president at the time, persuaded the feds.

Poruban refused to accept the rejection and continued to argue that it was unfair to deny him the loan because of his disability. He became the first blind person to receive an agricultural loan from the federal government. The year was 1969. He and Ann bought an old potato farm on 24 acres in Avon.

He dug a foundation, then built the storage building. Ann, who was pregnant at the time with their son Rich, used to come out and read him the levels so that he could pour the concrete level. Then he built a greenhouse.

The Poruban Nursery remains open to this day, operated by Floyd and Rich, who has both a BS and an MS in horticulture from CFAES.

In Avon, Floyd Poruban has been a member of the Lions Club for 50 years, having served as an officer numerous times, including president three times.

Because of cataracts, what little vision he possessed is gone. He hopes people recognize the opportunities for the blind to work in horticulture. “They can plant seeds. It’s an open book for them.”

Floyd Poruban is a recipient of the 2019 CFAES Distinguished Alumni Award. He is one of 12 outstanding individuals recognized by the college this year.

The deadline is June 30, 2019, to nominate someone for a 2020 CFAES Alumni Award.