September 15, 1975 12:00 PM

Maybe it was the rainwater: Alice Vonk catches it in plastic barrels because she believes tap water is bad for growing flowers and vegetables. But it was also years of careful cultivation, selection and attention to Mendelian theory that enabled Mrs. Vonk to produce a snow-white marigold and win the $10,000 prize.

Seed mogul David Burpee (PEOPLE, May 19) had offered that princely sum since 1954 to the first gardener who sent him seeds that would produce “marigolds as big as ‘Man in the Moon’ marigolds and as white as ‘Giant Fluffy White’ asters.” The 82-year old Burpee has a thing about the marigold; for 15 years he has lobbied to make it the official national flower.

Out in Sully, Iowa (pop. 700), Mrs.’ Vonk accepted the challenge (as she did when she produced a lemon cucumber and a purple green bean). “I used to look in the seed catalogs for the largest yellow marigolds I could find. I would let the palest flowers go to seed, then collect the seeds.” Each year she sent the “whitest” seeds off to Burpee, which test-planted them in California. Last year Mrs. Vonk, a 67-year-old widow, received $100 for “making significant progress in the search.” And late last month, bingo!

Accompanied by one of her eight children (she has 24 grandchildren), Mrs. Vonk was flown to Doylestown, Pa., to have lunch with Burpee and his admiring staff at his estate. Iowa bred, Mrs. Vonk began working as a farmhand at the age of 11 and had to drop out of school by the eighth grade. Her husband, who delivered oil to a farm cooperative, died in 1967 and she lives alone. Modern horticulture aside, Mrs. Vonk offered a simple explanation for her success to the experts at Burpee. “I believe,” she said firmly, “that God is still very much in charge.”

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