Dahlia Legacy Project

By the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers

Dahlia Legacy Profile

Date of Profile Submitted:  September 1, 2023

Author: Annie Walker

Dahlia Legend’s Full Name: Bob & Ruth Surber

The early 1990s were turbulent times for the Puget Sound Dahlia Association. Club founder (and often president), Phil Traff, died tragically in 1992 at only 43 years of age. Phil had been ill for a time and unable to fulfill his duties as club president, so PSDA vice president Phil Barden courageously led the club. But then Barden, who was also young, passed away. Stability and strong leadership were needed.

Ruth and Bob Surber were both born in Iowa, Ruth in 1923 and Bob in 1924. They met in Iowa on a blind date in 1940 when they were still teenagers. After high school, Bob joined the Navy and was assigned to submarine school not long after. In 1943, just before Bob was deployed on the USS Flying Fish (where he served as a pharmacist’s mate during World War II), they eloped.

After the war, Bob attended college at the University of Washington and graduated with a degree in psychology. That led to a 30-year career in laboratory sales. During this time, Ruth worked as a bookkeeper while they raised their 4 children. However, Bob’s heart attack in 1981 indicated it was time to change their lifestyle.

In 1990, Bob and Ruth attended the Puget Sound Dahlia Society annual show and promptly joined the PSDA. Not content to be just members, they joined to participate and contribute. They threw themselves wholeheartedly into the club, starting to exhibit in 1992 and always attending meetings. At their first ever show in 1992, they won Best Seedling in Show with a seedling they had started the previous year —an unusual occurrence for the time for such novice growers. They were also recruiters for the club, adding people like Jack and Char Crawford (their neighbors at the time) to the PSDA ranks.

It was at this time that the PSDA leadership team suffered the twin losses of Phil Traff and Phil Barden. After these devastating losses, new members Bob and Ruth stepped in and assisted with an eagerness to help wherever they could. In 1995, Bob was elected president of the PSDA, only 5 years after he joined the club. After he was elected, many things started to change.

Bob led with a precision oftentimes described as “military.” One of the first enactments of his three-year presidency was to host regular board meetings at his and Ruth’s Kenmore home to get the club back on track. Several of their other ideas that were adopted were related to the annual tuber sale. The PSDA rented a small warehouse space known lovingly as the Tuber Palace to house the many tubers donated before they were sold and to host work parties. Thirty years later, the club continues to use the same space.

Another innovation of Bob’s was the idea of tuber quality control, where teams of volunteers would check every donated tuber to ensure the presence of eyes (and no rot). He also insisted that every donated tuber was marked with the variety name and grower number. However, there was pushback over these new regulations due to concerns over extra work and time constraints. He thus created the idea of paying members for tuber donations. To encourage people to volunteer to help out with the extra workload tuber sale volunteers were also invited to choose tubers in payment for their time and assistance with quality control and packaging. Bob and Ruth were both very passionate about the idea that the volunteers were given something for their help. Those innovations continue thirty years later.

One of the biggest changes Bob instituted was the nomenclature change from fimbriated (FIMS) to laciniated (LC) as a dahlia type. Ever the stickler for military precision, Bob claimed that the term fimbriated was botanically incorrect. It wasn’t long before the Federation of Northwest Dahlia Growers adopted the change; the American Dahlia Society later followed suit. However, the term fimbriated is still used in some places, which would chagrin Bob were he still alive today.

A visit to the Surbers’ dahlia garden at their Kenmore home was a view of, well, military precision. They grew approximately 1000 plants, 600 of which were seedlings. All their dahlias were grown in raised flower beds complete with underground water supply lines connected to soaker hoses. They were firm believers in Cedar Grove compost, and judging from the size of the dahlias this was justified. Every plant was perfectly aligned with the others, and walkways topped with crushed rock wove through the beds, keeping slugs at bay and visitors’ shoes clean.

Bob and Ruth quickly became very interested in seedling propagation, specializing in laciniated varieties. They didn’t rush varieties to market, instead preferring to wait until their introductions were thoroughly tested. Some of their introductions included Birthday Girl, Belle of the Ball, Coconut Puff, Party Girl, Karen Louise, and Mistral.

Because of health issues, Bob gave up PSDA presidency after 1997. By then, he had things working like a well-oiled machine and so the switch from him to his successors went smoothly. Art Chmura, Brad Freeman, and Betty Burton all came after Bob and contributed to the well-being of the society as a whole. Ruth joined the PSDA board in 2000 as a trustee, and remained in that position for 8 years, continuing the Surber legacy.

In 2001, Bob died at the age of 77, leaving behind Ruth, 4 children, and many grandchildren. Ruth remained an active participant in the dahlia world until her death in 2018. While they might not have been dahlia club members as long as some others, their willingness to take on difficult tasks should be commemorated. They were not just members, they were contributors.


Kral, Martin, “Not Ready To Hang It Up,” Dahlias of Today 1996, p. 39.

Crawford, Char & Walker, Roger – Interviewed

Walker, Roger, interview.

Hall of Fame – Nomination

Not currently in Federation Hall of Fame


No Originations recorded in ADS

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