StoryCorps at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was honored with a National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The IMLS and the White House recognized the Garden as one of the country’s top five museums.

As a result, StoryCorps visited the Garden in March of 2012. StoryCorps is a national oral history project that records and preserves community stories and has millions of listeners through broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The StoryCorps interviews at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden focused on how the Garden has had a positive effect on lives and the community. The Garden helped select the interviewees. Approximately one-third were staff and volunteers; one-third were persons influential in the founding of the Garden; and the remaining third were chosen from the community, based on stories submitted by the community.

Eighteen 40-minute interviews of Garden stories were recorded. One was produced into a finished segment (directly below). A sampling of the others are represented below with photos taken by StoryCorps along with transcribed material and quotes. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is grateful to IMLS and StoryCorps for helping us preserve these stories.

Volunteers Chris Corsello & Lisa Watts, with Darlene VanLaan

The story of how Chris and Lisa came to the Garden and how the volunteers embraced them was one of the most powerful interviews and was chosen to be produced.  Listen here: StoryCorps segment featuring Chris Corsello, Lisa Watts and Darlene VanLaan.

Chris is a young man with autism and Lisa is his counselor. Lisa has been working with Chris for more than 10 years. At first he was non-verbal and they could only work together for five minutes at a time. Now they can work for three to four hours. Lisa wanted to help Chris gain job experience so he could learn to work independently in the community.  She approached the Garden’s volunteer manager, Darelene VanLaan, about opportunities at the Garden. Lisa says Chris’ experiences at the Garden have been more meaningful than some others he’s had. “Often [other places] would create a job just for him, or gave him a job that no one else wanted to do.” Darlene works with the pair to make sure Chris receives good experiences. He has helped at Plant Sales and played a key role stripping leaves from sticks for the “Diamonds in the Rough” stick sculpture.

Randee Humphrey, Education Director and  Allison Hall Kiesler, Children’s Garden Programmer

In addition to being colleagues, Randee and Allison have been friends for a long time. They met when their children were in elementary school together.  According to Randee, the Garden is a place of deep reflection, comfort, and joy. She says it is a privilege to watch and witness Allison’s style of teaching and love of nature.

*Allison Kiesler passed away in September of 2012. Although she is greatly missed, her legacy of a love of introducing children to the natural world lives on.

Grace Chapman, Horticulture Director and John Bouton, Retired Employee

Hired in March of 1985, John was one of the first employees at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. He has since retired, but recalls the early days, “it was really like starting from scratch!” In contrast, Grace is one of the newer members of the staff. She joined the Garden in October of 2011 and is the horticulture director.

Fran Purdum and Sharon Francisco, Long-time Volunteers


Fran and Sharon have been volunteers at the Gardensince the very early days. They volunteer in a variety of ways and manage the Garden’s archives. Both recall the hard work that has helped create the Garden we know today. Fran talks about the way they used to raise money  –  volunteers and supporters opened up their personal gardens for tours and threw themed fundraisers. Sharon also has a deeply personal connection to the Garden — her family lived in the property’s Carriage House during the Great Depression. Sharon especially cites the importance of the Garden for the next generation. “Children are not exposed to nature like they used to be,” she says.  “This Garden allows children to get back to their roots. “

Polly Anderson, Long-time Volunteer and Supporter and Martha Anne Ellis, Garden Shop Manager

Polly has been a supporter of the Garden from the start. The Garden’s first director Robert Hebb asked Polly to create a shop at the Garden, which she helped open in 1990. Martha Anne began volunteering in the Shop when she was going through a divorce. She says being around the warm volunteers was exactly what was needed. The current Garden Shop in the Visitors Center is their dream come true.

Bill King, Board Member and Former Board President, Claire Terry, Horticulturist

Bill and Claire both share a love of horticulture as they both like “digging in dirt.” Bill recognizes the vital role volunteers play at the Garden. “Money can’t buy the commitment of the volunteers and Lewis Ginter would not survive without [them].” Claire always wanted to work in a botanical garden, but a position was not available when she was looking. Instead she began volunteering – and four months later, she was hired! Claire says the Garden is an oasis.

Dick Abbott, Long-time Volunteer and “Ginter Geezer” and Kelly Riley, Children’s Education Coordinator

Kelly has been working at Lewis Ginter for the past 20 years. She started as a horticulturist, then moved into the education department where she now coordinates children’s education. One of Kelly’s favorite stories is seeing “light bulbs go off” when children realize French fries come from potatoes grown underground. Dick became a volunteer 12 years ago. He is part of a special group of “men of a certain age” who call themselves the Ginter Geezers. They do a variety of projects around the Garden on Tuesdays and often have lunch afterwards.  Their average age is 81 years old!


 Frank Robinson, President & CEO, Shane Tippett, Executive Director

Frank’s first impression of the Garden was during a December visit in 1991 when he saw three acres of soil and a partly completed walkway.  He described it as “a moonscape.” Over the past 20 years, he has served as the Garden’s executive director and his vision has helped create the Garden we know and love today. In October of 2011, Frank was promoted to CEO & President of the Garden, and assistant director Shane Tippett stepped into the executive director role. Both Shane and Frank are very attuned to what the community wants.  Frank’s favorite aspects of the Garden are the trees Grace Arents planted in the early 1900s. Shane loves the peace the Garden offers.

*Frank retired in March of 2015 and is now President Emeritus.

Mary Mitchell & Betsy Saunders, Early Supporters of the Garden

The first time Mary and Betsy heard about the property that was to become Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was at a meeting for the Richmond Horticultural Society (RHS).  They learned the land and buildings, left by Lewis Ginter’s niece, Grace Arents, to the City of Richmond, was not being utilized as Arents’ will stated: to create a botanical garden named in honor of her uncle Lewis Ginter. While driving home from the meeting, Mary and Betsy decided to fight to uphold Grace Arents’ will because it was the right thing to do. Although they had no experience in such matters, they hired a legal counsel to make sure Grace Arents’ will was upheld.
For their first fundraising meeting Mary and Betsy called 50 people — only nine came! However, Mary and Betsy were not discouraged. Fortunately, their efforts caught the attention of Richmond philanthropist Lora Robins. Mrs. Robins initial gift was not a huge amount, but it gave  Mary and Betsy the start they needed.  “We thought we were rich as Croesus! ” Mrs. Robins went on to become a major supporter of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and although she passed away in 2010, her legacy lives on in the beautiful gardens and facilities.

Mary and Betsy were the perfect duo as their strengths complemented each other.   Betsy explained that she was the political person while Mary was the gardener.  Mary was the one with the dream of the botanical garden. Fighting for the Garden was a full time job.  They knew what the name was going to be, but the actual Garden did not exist.  Mary and Betsy worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to raise money and awareness.  After a process taking three years, an amicable settlement allowed the formation of the Garden. The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was chartered by court decree. Mary and Betsy, along with many others, worked hard to help create Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.