Carolyn Crayton

An unanticipated snow storm didn’t stop the first official Macon International Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring of 1983, and the annual event has grown from a three-day festival to a month-long celebration that attracts annually hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Middle Georgia city.

Carolyn Crayton, the founder and the former president and CEO of the festival, is to be honored by the Japanese government in Atlanta on June 24. She will be one of 85 foreign recipients recognized by the Japanese government as a member of the Order of the Rising Sun. 

The order is awarded in various categories to those who have made distinguished achievements in the following fields: international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, advancements in their field, development in welfare or preservation of the environment.

Mrs. Crayton, 84, is to receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in recognition of her contribution to promoting cultural exchanges and understanding of Japan in the United States through the cherry blossom festival.

Also the founder in 1974 and former president and CEO of the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission, she told Global Atlanta that she was motivated to found both organizations by a love of beauty and friendship.

She also said modestly, “When you start, you have no idea what it will be like.”

Her inspiration for starting the cherry blossom festival, she added, was to honor the real estate magnate and horticulturist William Fickling Sr., who launched the city’s craze for Yoshino cherry trees.

According to Jake Ferro, the current president and CEO of the festival, Mr. Fickling first came across several Yoshino cherry trees after having planted the seedlings for dogwoods and other trees in the backyard of his house in the late 1940s.

He was very much taken by a few Yoshino cherry trees that grew up unexpectedly among the others. Although he had no idea what they were since at the time they were a rarity in the South, he was captivated and began his research.

While in Washington on a business trip, he compared a cutting of one of his backyard trees with a Yoshimo near the tidal basin and found that they were identical.

Soon afterward he began planting them in earnest. When Mrs. Crayton moved to the Wesleyan Woods neighborhood in the mid-1970s near to Mr. Fickling, she encouraged him to plant them not just in their subdivision but throughout the city.

She later struck a deal with Mr. Fickling whereby he agreed to pay for the trees if she would organize the planting, which she did with so much gusto that there are now more than 300,000 throughout the city. Mr. Fickling’s descendants have continued to donate trees every year.

Mrs. Crayton’s timing couldn’t have been better because it was at this time that the YKK Corp. of America established its zipper factory in Macon following a gung-ho effort by the local chamber of commerce and state officials to kindle a strong relationship with Japanese companies.

With the support of Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., then a subsidiary of the London-based British-American Tobacco Company Ltd., and YKK, the festival soon took on an international aspect drawing supporters from around the world with different countries featured each year.

Mrs. Crayton is joined by other distinguished Americans who are to be honored by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun in their cities. They are:

Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; William Bradley, former member of the U.S. Senate; Julian Raby, director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art; Michael Robin Reich, former director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies; William Joseph Hybl, president emeritus of the U.S. Olympic Committee;

Elmer Harris, honorary consul general of Japan to Birmingham, Ala.; Elmer Colglazier, former executive office of the National Academy of Science; Peter O’Malley, president and founder of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Minoru Tonai, former president of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans; Mirja Hanson, former president of the Japan America Society of Minnesota; Ronald Otsuka, curator of Asian Art at the Denver Art Museum;

Edwin Hawkins Jr., president of the Japan America Society of Hawaii; Raymond Murakami, former chairman of the Japanese American Memorial Foundation and Winifred Olsen, permanent mission of Japan to the United Nations.

To learn more about the festival, click here.