James McConnell was an instrumental member of the National Tree Seed Laboratory, originally called the Eastern Tree Seed Laboratory, when he was appointed director in 1971. Even though he recalls the job putting him in over his head, he regarded the seedlab as a very interesting place. While he was there he oversaw what he called an “administrative monstrosity” as he had to deal with money, leases, and seed requests coming and going from a number of different sources at the same time. The seed testing process was one that, in Mr. McConnell’s words “only women can do. They have the patience, they have the agility to do it and keep up with it.” At the time, McConnell’s seed lab was one of only two accredited in the country. One of his first jobs as the director involved working to bring back customers that had been lost under the poor management that was in place before he became director. This involved a fair amount of travel as he personally went to every previous nursery that had business with them and not only regained their business, but also helped them grow their new seedlings.
Eventually, James McConnell became involved in the creating of the US Tree Seed Center that played host to a number of foreign researchers and inquiries. When he was out traveling and seeking business for the accredited seed lab, Mr. McConnell could never imagine the contacts he would make from across the globe. One day he recalls he came across a funny looking letter during his work. Much to his surprise it was from the Duke of Wellington requesting for longleaf pine see to plan at his estate. He then arranged with his boss in Atlanta to send him some seed along with a letter saying that he would be coming through London on his way to Norway in the next month. The Duke of Wellington then invited Mr. McConnell and his wife to come by and see the seedlings they had requested at their estate. Unfortunately the travel plans did not work out, but they did keep in touch long enough for the Duke to question why the seeds were coming up like grass. Mr. McConnell assured him that that was just how they grew and that they were doing just fine. “When pine seedling comes up it looks like a pine, this looks like a clump of grass, longleaf does.”