David Rowinski. Credit: Sarah Klise

Longtime West Berkeley resident David Rowinski died at home on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023.

The cause of death was, per David, “an expired lifetime warranty.” Surrounded by friends and neighbors, David remained jovial, snarky, and predictably indecent until the very end. In accordance with his wishes, his body will be composted and returned to Berkeley to nourish flowers and gardens (including his own).

David was born in rural Connecticut on April 28, 1936. Of hearty Polish stock, he grew up on a dairy farm, which served him well when he later became a gardener and vocal opponent of plant-based “milk” alternatives. David graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), where he studied with master photographer Minor White. He then worked as a lifeguard on Florida’s Gold Coast before traveling west to settle in the Bay Area. Arriving first in San Francisco, he worked as an artists’ model by day and reveled in the freedom and openness of the Castro by night.

David moved to Berkeley in the ’80s and met the love of his life, William Blackburn. The 1907 pink cottage where they settled in the Potter Creek neighborhood of West Berkeley was a major reclamation project. It also proved to be the perfect location for David to apply his new trade as a “garden fairy,” using skills he honed at Oakland’s Merritt College. David’s urban garden was his pride and joy; filled with roses, plums, and flowering plants of all kinds, it bursts with color and fragrance. David continued to take photographs — many of plants in his garden — which he sold at the Nature Company, the beloved Berkeley-based chain of retail stores that represented his photographic work.

A member of Berkeley Senior Swimmers, a group that met regularly at Willard pool, David counted his “swimming buddies” among his most cherished friends. He was also an avid Labrador Retriever enthusiast and advocate for the breed. When not swimming, tending his garden, or walking his dog, David could most often be found outfitted in Human Rights Campaign garb flipping happily through his Rolodex, making phone calls, and leaving long-winded voicemails that often started with a greeting from the dog (SPEAK!) and broached topics ranging from Rachmaninoff concertos to the perils of monogamy. A self-proclaimed Luddite, David never capitulated in his long battle against the advancement of technology. When recent storms rendered his landline inoperative for more than a month, tech-averse David chose to shuffle off this mortal coil rather than learn to use a cell phone.

While he earned his living in a variety of ways, including as an artists’ model, a photographer, river guide, gardener, and plantsman, his real calling was as the “yenta” of his neighborhood, a voracious provider of social gossip and cultural criticism. Above all, he was a creative force. It showed in his garden, his photography, and his natural talent for starting an argument. David was a curmudgeon, yes, but for a cantankerous grump, he had scores of friends throughout his life—young and old, gay and straight, swimmers and outdoors people, folks he knew from Berkeley “Hort” Nursery and Berkeley Bowl West. David inspired great loyalty and returned it in kind.

David was preceded in death by his father, Frank Rowinski; mother, Louise Rowinski; and partner, William Blackburn. He leaves behind his yellow Lab Bella, his beautiful garden, and some of the most wonderful (and understanding) friends in the world.

A celebration of life garden party is scheduled for May 20. Contributions may be made to your local public radio station.