Melne Miller Thomas was passionate about gardening and inspired her neighbors to...

Melne Miller Thomas was passionate about gardening and inspired her neighbors to beautify where they lived. Credit: Gabriel Thomas

Melne Miller Thomas knew her way around a garden.

“She knew every specimen of every planting on anyone's property,” said Suffolk County Legis. Jim Mazzarella, a longtime neighbor. “She could basically identify just about anything.”

Thomas, a Moriches resident who was once a master gardener at Old Westbury Gardens, died on April 11. She was 71.

A job ad in Newsday led her to Old Westbury Gardens, where she worked in the flower house for years.

“She also contributed to the layout and the planning of the gardens,” said her son, Gabriel Thomas.

Melne Miller was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on Oct. 20, 1951. She was in her early teens during the Freedom Summer of 1964, an initiative to register Black voters in Mississippi, when the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and murdered three organizers out of her hometown.

“My mom grew up seeing the uprising of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and it stuck with her for the rest of her life,” Gabriel Thomas said. “Even till the end, she saw everyone with compassion.” 

After high school, Melne Miller briefly attended college in Arkansas but left to go work in Nashville. She then went to Louisiana, where she lived on an island in the bayou.

“She would always tell me stories about piloting a fan boat at night through the willow wisp,” her son said.

Her nomadic lifestyle and love of music led her up north to Woodstock, New York. She began working as a gardener and groundskeeper for musician Todd Rundgren, who helped her get a job at Bearsville Sound Studio.

Woodstock is also where she met her future husband, Steven Thomas, who owned an auto garage.

One day, his co-worker told him about a woman who was new to the area.

“I went into town and I saw her and she was just beautiful,” Steven Thomas said.

The couple bonded but eventually drifted apart, before crossing paths again when they both moved to New York City.

“From that point on, it was love all the way for 40 years,” Steven Thomas said.

They got married in 1983 and started looking for somewhere less urban to settle down.

“She complained to me about living in the city, especially after Gabe was born,” her husband said. “She didn't like the idea of him going to gym and recess on rooftops with fences around. She wanted him to be where there was open spaces and grass that he could get to easily every day.”

The Thomases moved to Moriches, eventually buying a house on the Forge River. It was very important to Melne Miller Thomas that she lived somewhere embedded in nature.

“She loved living on Long Island in this house,” said Steven Thomas. “We would sit out here in the summer and just talk to each other about how lucky we were to be here and how beautiful it was to look at the wetlands and the water.”

Melne Miller Thomas spent many years volunteering at the local school district, but found her real passion in gardening. She got certified as a master gardener in her early 50s. She took that knowledge back home, inspiring her neighbors to beautify their land.

“It becomes contagious,” Mazzarella said.

Some of Gabriel Thomas’ favorite memories took place in the garden with his mother, getting soil under their fingernails. That time in nature taught him a lot about plants, as well as major life lessons.

“Life finds a way, if you plant a seed and you tend to it and you care for it,” Gabriel Thomas said. “It will grow and thrive.”

In addition to her husband and son, Melne Miller Thomas is survived by her mother, June Miller; a granddaughter, Maya; a daughter-in-law, Kiernan; her sister Lori and brother-in-law Bob; and her brother, John.

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