Although Tom McNutt had nearly four successful decades in the agriculture industry – as a 4-H agent, high-school educator and Franklin County extension chairman – he didn't hit his stride until after retirement.
That's when he found television.
The Hilliard resident became a "rock star" as the gardening expert for the weekend morning team at WCMH-TV (Channel 4) in 1988, said Colleen Marshall, a longtime anchor with the station. The job is one he figured he might do for a year or two, but he stayed at it for 23 years.
"I'd be with him at public events, and people came up to him in droves," Marshall said. "He was knowledgeable, but people felt they were his friends."
The horticulture guru – who spent Saturday mornings chatting with bumblebees, wading through ponds and getting his hands dirty for the sake of viewers – died Dec. 13 of pneumonia and complications from a muscle disease, inclusion-body myositis, which he battled for 20 years. He was 84.
Beyond helping generations of central Ohioans develop green thumbs, McNutt endeared himself to fans with his folksy humor, said Larry Burchfield, owner of Cedarbrook Landscaping & Garden Center in Powell.
When Burchfield was a teenager, McNutt was his 4-H supervisor. The two developed a friendship that Burchfield said helped foster his own career in horticulture, with McNutt often visiting Burchfield's nursery for his show.
"He knew his product from his education and experience, but he could present it to people in a humorous way," said Burchfield, adding that McNutt often dressed in costume for segments. "I always had fun with Tom, and it was never anything serious."
McNutt was a Hardin County native who graduated with an agriculture degree from Ohio State University in 1955 and a master's in agricultural education in 1962. He was an avid supporter of his alma mater, especially Ohio State sports.
McNutt was often interviewed as chairman of the Franklin County Cooperative Extension Service – the post he retired from in 1988 – and during his time as Franklin County Fair spokesman. Still, his knowledge spoke for itself.
Despite his lack of experience on the air – he never took a broadcasting class – McNutt excelled on the screen, Marshall said.
"He was a natural," she said.
And few people could match him in gardening expertise.
"He never had anyone call in who he didn't have an answer for," Marshall said. "I never heard, 'I'll look that up and get back to you.'"
His contributions to horticulture landed him in the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame, the 4-H Hall of Fame and the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame.
McNutt's family members – he leaves behind his wife of 60 years, Joan; three adult children; and four grandchildren – expect Christmas to be especially difficult this year because he embraced the season.
"Think of the most-decorated house and dial it up 10 notches, and that is Mom and Dad's house," said Cincinnati resident Tamara Bundy, McNutt's middle child. "You can see the glow coming from the house. He loved Christmas decorations, but it was always about family for Dad."
McNutt loved showing his grandchildren his broadcasts. They came to appreciate his celebrity status, Bundy said, when strangers approached him at restaurants or asked whether they were related to the "famous" Tom McNutt.
"All the positions he held from TV, to all the awards he got, at the heart of it, he was always a farm boy from Hardin County," Bundy said. "He loved helping people, talking with people, being silly with people. He always thought of himself as a people person.
"All the rest was icing on the cake."