His father’s parents lived in Los Gatos, but they always had fruit trees, and Lazaneo’s father for some years had cultivated a garden of edible and ornamental plants. “I remember benefiting from the garden, the produce, certainly. Being able to help pick. We had a grape arbor, and I remember going out when the grapes were ripe and plucking them and spitting out the seeds.” His father died, however, when Lazaneo was ten years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his four younger siblings. “So then she didn’t have too much time to mess around in the yard.”
On the brink of his adolescence, Lazaneo decided to cultivate the garden. He and two of his sisters found navy beans and popcorn, which they planted. “And lo and behold, they actually grew! We were able to harvest beans and popcorn, and with that encouragement, I continued to plant gardens every year from then on.” In his plot, he tended tomatoes, sweet corn, lettuce, radishes, carrots. He “ventured out into the front yard, where we had mostly just the standard lawn and hedges and shrubs, and there was a section between the two properties where I developed an ornamental flower bed. I put in a variety of annual flowers throughout the years.” As a teenager, he visited nurseries, bought transplants, started specimens from seed.
The freedom that he had to experiment kindled his lifelong passion for horticulture, Lazaneo suggests. But his curiosity also cost him his hands. This happened one day when he was 17. “As my wife would say, it’s a guy thing.” A chuckle hints of embarrassment. “I’ve never talked to any women who have played with explosives, but I’ve talked to several men who had close encounters.”
Somewhere he learned that he could make gunpowder by mixing charcoal and saltpeter and sulfur. “At the time I thought this was kind of neat.” So he got the ingredients at a drugstore and tried it. “Then I got a little more carried away,” Lazaneo recalls. “I had taken a chemistry class, and I had access to some phosphorus, which I found out later is quite unstable.” He had also gotten hold of some potassium chlorate. He mixed it with sugar and added the phosphorus. “Well. Any combination of potassium chlorate and sugar is not that stable if it’s agitated or impacted. And the phosphorus made it even less so. I was aware that it was a powerful explosive. I’d detonated some of it with friends. You know, as boys you blow things up. Whatever. But I wasn’t aware that it could go off spontaneously.”
That’s what happened to the few tablespoons of the mixture that Lazaneo had stored in a baby-food jar. He says it wasn’t so much the explosion but rather the shrapnel that caused the most damage. “The glass just totally splintered. I was holding it in my right hand, which got taken off at the wrist.” The impact also destroyed most of his left hand. He was rushed to the Stanford Medical Center, where a surgeon salvaged part of one finger on the left hand as well as Lazaneo’s left thumb.
Today Lazaneo acknowledges he was lucky the explosion didn’t kill him or some other innocent party. “I kept this stuff in my room, in a bottom drawer.” His mother or someone else in the household might have come upon it, he reflects.
Recovering from the accident caused him to miss the first half of his senior year, but he was back in class during the second half. “I’d gone to summer school some, so I had enough units left to graduate with my class.” Subsequent surgeries helped to rehabilitate the left hand. He learned to use a hook to replace the right one. He enrolled as a math major at his local junior college, but after one year, his interest in math waned. Finally a nurseryman suggested he study horticulture, so he enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, “And in my first quarter down there, I realized this was something I really loved.” Although the explosion had severely damaged the cornea of his left eye, he had some vision in his right one. With magnification, “I could focus on books. Holding them fairly closely, I could read. Even in college, I was able to use a microscope for bacteriology class. I could view an insect collection and other things of that sort. I was fortunate having good enough reading sight to get through my education.”
With his bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture, Lazaneo moved back to the San Jose area and worked in a retail nursery. He says he enjoyed taking care of and learning more about plants, but after six months, “I realized that what I really liked best was interacting with people — helping them select plants and understand what they needed to do to have success with them.” Reasoning that he should become a teacher, Lazaneo wound up getting a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California at Davis, with a secondary credential in vocational education.
He had married by then, and after his graduation from Davis, he moved to Sacramento, where his wife was working. As he hunted for a job, he says he “ran into a bit of a catch-22.” Most of the high schools wanted to hire teachers who could drive, something that Lazaneo’s vision prohibited. “Also, because I had a master’s degree, they would have had to pay at a higher scale,” another strike against him. Community colleges, on the other hand, didn’t require driving skills, “But they typically wanted teachers who had had some experience in high school.”
One day Lazaneo was rebuilding a fence at the back of the property that he and his wife were renting when he began chatting with the neighbor behind them. “He took an interest in me and asked if I wanted to go downtown and talk to one of the county supervisors about finding some kind of a position.” Assuming that the older man wielded political connections, Lazaneo agreed and was surprised to find that his patron was making a cold call. “But he played up my strengths,” Lazaneo says, and the result was his winning an internship at the UC Cooperative Extension office for Sacramento County. When the internship ended, he applied for and got the job in the San Diego County Cooperative Extension office.