SOMERVILLE, NJ - Beneath their masks, they were smiling, touched by the generosity of a stranger who wanted to do his part and say 'thank you.'
Flowers have a way of doing that, especially when they are unexpected.
At 7:54 a.m. Friday, a few minutes early, Tim Hionis arrived at the front of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Somerset driving a 24-foot box truck. Packed inside were carts loaded with trays of Easter lilies and tulips, a total of 2,100 plants intended for the medical staff and support personnel fighting to save lives and provide comfort to patients in the midst of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
The plants were a gift from Hionis and his three brothers, Pete, Spiro and Gerry, owners of Hionis Greenhouses in Whitehouse Station, opened by their parents in 1983.
In 30 minutes, the ground floor of the parking deck adjacent to the employee entrance was transformed into a makeshift greenhouse, with lilies and tulips filling the corner of the structure.
Hospital CEO Tony Cava and Patrick Delaney, vice president of Operations stood inside on the ground floor of the parking deck where the plants were being transferred from the truck, greeting employees in the midst of a shift change. They made certain that their hard-working staff - most wearing scrubs and protective masks - brought a plant home with them, or took one inside to their work units to be carried home when their shift was over.
State Sen. Kip Bateman, a friend of the Hionis brothers, made the arrangements for the delivery, and was there in the morning waiting for the arrival of the truck. He climbed up on the back of the truck and with Hionis, moved the carts holding the flowers on to the lift gate, which was lowered and the carts passed on to a crew of hospital workers who wheeled the carts into the parking deck to be unloaded.
Bateman called on Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher, who lives nearby, to help out.
Hionis stood on the lift gate and paused with mixed feelings, looking out as the carts loaded with flowers were pushed and pulled into the parking deck.
The brothers' greenhouse business is built around the Easter season, but this year, business if off 80 percent, he said.
Normally, he and his brothers would be busy shipping upwards of 40,000 Easter lilies to churches, supermarket chains, landscapers and other large clients this weekend; COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time, he said.
"Once this virus came through, my orders got canceled," he said. "Churches, businesses, my big customers got shut down," he said.
He and Bateman were walking through one of the greenhouses in Whitehouse Station earlier this week, surrounded by hundreds of flats of Easter lilies when the state senator suggested Hionis donate the flowers to the hospital staffs in central New Jersey.
"We all know they're going through a rough time dealing with what's going on, so I thought 'why not,' let's cheer them up," Hionis said. "Yeah, let's do it," he told Bateman, who made some phone calls and arranged to have thousands of flowers delivered to Hunterdom Medical Center in Flemington on Thursday, and RWJUH/Somerset on Friday.
Today, Hionis will drive a truckload of flowers to the medical staff at RWJUH in New Brunswick.
"It's better to have the flowers appreciated by the hard-working doctors and nurses than to throw them out," he added. "We need a few more smiles. Everybody is so nervous about everything," he said.
"Today really made me feel great," Hionis said. "I came back and told my brothers, they practically hd tears in their eyes. The crowd of nurses that came out and took the flowers, and the staff helping to unload, it made by day."
Primarily commercial growers, the Hionis brothers do have a retail operation at their location at 4 Coddington Road off Route 22, across from the Ryland Inn.
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays, Hionis expects homeowners will be stopping in for bedding plants and vegetable plants for backyard gardens.
Mother's Day is approaching in a few weeks and he's counting on an increase in business, thanks to Mom.
The brothers employ 45 workers, most of whom are still on the job, according to Hionis A few have chosen to stay home but Hionis said their jobs will be waiting for them when they decide to return.
"We're keeping them busy, we have to," Hionis said. "We're still growing, there's still a planting season; we have to anticipate that this will be over sooner rather than later. We have to be ready."
Hionis Greenhouses can be reached at (908) 534-7710