By Michael E. Miller
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A few years later, as an undergraduate studying horticulture at the University of Illinois, he was wrapping flower cuttings in newspaper one day when he noticed a "Dear Abby" column. "It was the first time I'd ever even heard the words gay and homosexual," Hull recalls. "I started reading up on it, and you can imagine the books they had on the subject at that time. I thought, Jesus, I don't want anything to do with this!"
In 1968, he earned a fellowship to study palms at Longwood Gardens, just outside Philadelphia. There he met for the first time a group of gay men and began to come to terms with his sexuality. Then he told his family. "When I finally came out," Hull says, "it destroyed Mom, and my dad just didn't talk about it."
His passion for all things green and exotic also bloomed at Longwood. When he successfully demonstrated that a tropical needle palm could survive a frigid Northeast winter by nestling inside a bamboo cluster near a waterfall, the garden's director "couldn't believe it.... He said, 'Kid, you've convinced me. Study whatever you want,'" Hull says.
Soon he got his first taste of the exotic travel that would become his niche as an international palm expert. Between 1968 and 1971, he collected seeds and studied germination in Costa Rica and Jamaica as well as at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.
Miami, he recalls, seemed too good to be real. In 1969, before a disease killed most of the coconut palm population in the early Seventies, the towering trees lined nearly every street. "It was just like coming to paradise," Hull says.
After earning a master's degree in 1971, he moved here and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Miami. But soon thereafter, Dr. Cal Dodson, the expert he planned to study under, departed and Hull in turn quit school. A few months later, he took an $11,000-a-year position as an agent in the Miami-Dade extension office of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), where he taught farmers how to improve growing techniques and deal with rare diseases and pests.
"De brought an unmatched knowledge of palms and ornamental horticulture to our region," says Don Pybas, director of the extension office and one of Hull's colleagues since the early Eighties. "He really played a key role in getting that industry going."
Hull moved to Miami just as a new superindustry was exploding, says Dr. Alan Hodges, a University of Florida economist. A few large nurseries had operated near the city since the Fifties without much growth, but as more Americans moved to the suburbs and bought homes, they developed a voracious appetite for palm trees, elephant ears, and other tropical plants. South Florida's wet, moderate climate proved the best in the country for growing them. By the Eighties and Nineties, the industry blew up. Today Florida produces two-thirds of the tropical foliage sold in the United States, accounting for $15.2 billion in sales in 2005, the last year statistics were compiled.
Hull imported new, exotic palms from around the world and helped teach nurseries to grow and sell them. "It was thrilling to be a part of the horticulture industry at that time," Hull says. "Those were great years."
Benjamin León Jr. reclines comfortably behind a wide glossy desk, sipping a tiny cup of fragrant café cubano. Through a long window on one side of his corner office, he can watch elderly patients sitting in a plush lounge, waiting for doctors. Through another, two waterfalls pour silently down granite walls, bracketing the front entrance to one of his healthcare clinics in West Miami-Dade.
"I was a dishwasher when I was 16 years old. I worked at Winn-Dixie. I'm a self-made guy," says León, age 63, a stocky man with a puffy gray mane circling his face and droopy Marlon Brando eyes. He gestures vaguely when speaking of his experience living next door to Hull: "I never wanted to hurt that guy."
León's family fled eastern Cuba for Miami in 1961. His father, an accountant on the island, opened a small clinic in Little Havana. Nearly 40 years later, the company born of that operation — Leon Medical Centers — is run by the younger León and operates five Medicare-only centers in the Miami metro area that serve 28,000 mostly Hispanic patients. León Jr. sold the company's HMO last year to a national group for $400 million.
As his wealth multiplied, the healthcare magnate looked for a new home, a quiet idyll away from the bustle of everyday Miami. He thought he'd found it in 2001 when he bought three acres and a home on SW 90th Avenue just off Killian Drive in South Miami-Dade.
But that respite was soon shattered, he says, by the eccentric gardener next door, a man who — in León's telling — refused to listen to reason, act neighborly, or behave sanely. "I think at one point he just kind of lost it. Because it made no sense, his actions made no sense," León says, his voice tinged with confusion. "At some point, I just said, 'I don't need this.' And we left."