Daniel Rubin: Botanical Bill's striking impact

He led a renewal of a classic township park, but then things abruptly changed.

Bill Early, 67, ex-prez of Merion Botanical Park, hauling away a fall oak branch. By Daniel Rubin

Bill Earley cleared 1,000 pounds of trash from the grounds of Merion Botanical Park.

  • Earley had help from an army of Mongomery County immates, Boy Scouts, Little Leaguers and more.
  • A note from the town's recreation director said that board members had complained the reformation project was being conducted without their approval.

By all accounts, what Bill Earley got done in his short, shocking stewardship of the Merion Botanical Park was a marvel.

He secured a $9,000 donation from an anonymous donor and marshaled an unlikely army of Montgomery County inmates, rabbinic students, truants, Boy Scouts, ROTC members, and Little Leaguers to clear the idyllic grounds of 1,000 pounds of trash, including a bottle of Esslinger's - which hasn't been brewed since 1964.

Then, he oversaw the removal of nearly 70 dead, dying, or decayed trees. Volunteers restored memorial signs, spruced up benches, laid paths. They planted 80 shrubs, bushes, and trees.

Some of the kids called him Botanical Bill, the big, mustachioed guy swinging a machete.

This all happened between June 15, when the Main Line park's board of directors named him president, and Nov. 29, the day of the Chainsaw Incident.

That's when Lower Merion Township, which owns the park by the train tracks and the Merion post office, ordered all work to cease and desist.

Someone had sent to Lindsay Taylor, the township's parks and recreation director, a photograph of a laborer, hired by Earley, sawing a tree dislodged by Hurricane Sandy. The workman wore no safety gear, Taylor says.

Her note to Earley mentioned that some board members had complained that his reformation project was being conducted without their approval.

Board members, who were not known for meeting too often, saw a lot of each other after that. Twice they met in December. They decided to call for Earley's resignation. He went on the offense.

In a letter to the Main Line Times, he said his critics were those who did the least for the park, but "think it's theirs." He threatened legal action.

Then on Friday, on the eve of the board's vote, Earley gave up. He told me, "I don't want to spend any more time with them."

Brenda Casper, the board secretary, doesn't want to debate Earley point by point, but did say that she disagreed with some of his decisions about the historic park, created in 1944 by residents, including Laura Barnes, who developed the grounds of the famed foundation created by her husband, Albert C. Barnes.

Casper is a professor of plant ecology at the University of Pennsylvania who has been on the board for a decade. Was the board a little sleepy, I asked her.

"It was a little sleepy," she said.

It's awakened now. Up next, she said, is a master plan for the park that will rely on suggestions from the community. A public meeting is planned for spring.

"We are super-excited," she said. "What we don't want is any one person deciding what the park is going to be." Taylor, the Parks and Rec director, is excited as well. She told me Earley got done in weeks what would have taken the township many months. "He's been an incredible force," she said.

As I walked through the park Monday with the man, he said he wasn't sure if he would come by any more with his dog, a greyhound rescue named Vindy. Earley, 67, grabbed a downed oak branch and dragged it to the trash, as he said, "This place has been my therapy."

For the last decade he has cared at home for his wife, who has Alzheimer's. He found peace in the park. He understands that not everyone did. "They came to my house and complained I ran the place like a CEO," said the retired Wall Street manager with a Wharton MBA.

"So, you were the invasive species then," I asked.

"Of course."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin