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Garden entering a new phase in a long history

By Valarie Schwartz

The struggles to begin the N.C. Botanical Garden were as troublesome for C. Ritchie Bell as the exotic invasives that now strangle many Southern gardens, but many of the details have burrowed as deeply as kudzu roots. Still, Bell was able to provide an oral history on Feb. 1 in the garden’s Totten Center for members of the N.C. Native Plant Society.

“We had the garden as an idea,” Bell said as he addressed several dozen in attendance. Bell was hired into the botany department in 1951 and served as the garden’s founding director until his retirement in 1986. He said that Dr. W.C. Coker, who in 1903 became the first professor of botany at UNC, generated the idea.

Land south of the campus was dedicated for development of a botanical garden in 1952, and though “money was hard to come by,” Bell said, the trustees passed a resolution to start a garden.

When it came to legislation, Bell had a hard time cutting through the red tape. In 1966, he presented a plan to Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson asking for $70-80,000, but “the university, as always, was tight for money,” Bell explained.

His funding request was turned down — but he and the future garden had a friend in William Lanier Hunt, who had “a friend in the state Legislature,” and the bottom line, which Bell spelled out in detail, is that the university’s budget for that year passed because money for the garden was included in it.

“That’s how we lucked out and got the botanical garden started — political power and one telephone call,” Bell said before he thanked everyone in attendance for supporting the garden and sat down.

But the history lesson continued as Ken Moore, the first employee of the garden, hired in 1971, shared his early memories of the garden before Bell’s successor, Peter White, led everyone on a tour of the Education Center projected for completion in June.

White’s enthusiasm for the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum building in the UNC system spread through the group even after traversing a muddy trench to stand in chilly breezeways that one of these days will sport rocking chairs and tea trolleys along with a view of the sycamore-studded nature trail.

The $12-million project far exceeds imaginings held by Coker or Bell, but like them White and the current staff continue the search for dream-supporting money.

“It is a privately fund-raised building,” White said. “There are no public dollars in this building. We’ve raised $10 million and we’re looking for the last $2 million.”
Naming opportunities that help create a legacy are one of the ways money is raised and, “We have some really neat spaces to inspire donors,” White said.

The 29,696-square-foot Education Center includes three buildings connected by breezeways — the classroom building, public service building and (the only named building thus far) Reeves Auditorium, where one can visualize many enchanting gatherings in coming years. Tables and cabinets from the renovation of the chancellor’s house will be brought in but more money is required for furniture and landscaping, which will take years to properly cultivate — with native plants of course.

Economically speaking, the path is thorny.

“Our major gifts are down,” said Charlotte Jones-Roe, associate director for development. “The number of large gifts dropped precipitously a year ago. The world has changed.”

Even if your gift won’t support the naming of a room, a green elevator or a cistern, any measure of giving will help toward realizing this goal. And who knows — maybe you’ll make it into the next chapter of history!
Learn more at ncbg.unc.edu.

Contact Valarie Schwartz at valariekays at mac dot com

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