What they remember about Morris Arboretum and its founders

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Lydia Morris in the garden.

In 1957, John A.H. Shober returned to his parents' home in Philadelphia after a harrowing stint in the Army during the Cold War, taking part in missions that would haunt him for years to come.

"I saw things and had to do things and had some experiences that were just difficult for me," says the 82-year-old Shober, who confesses he hasn't had a good night's sleep since then.

One place eased the distress he could not express: Morris Arboretum.

Though neglected at the time, the Chestnut Hill public garden provided a haven from the very real, but little talked about, post-traumatic stress that followed Shober's military service.

Over the ensuing decades and generations, the arboretum's grand trees and quirky Fernery, its Mercury Loggia and Swan Pond, and, especially, the swirl of color and texture that is the Rose Garden, have brought joy in every season to Shober, his wife, Elizabeth, and their family, which now totals eight children plus spouses, 19 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

"I still find some times when I just want to go over to the arboretum and sit there," he says pleasantly.

A retired business leader, Shober is one of 15 Morris devotees who have recorded their thoughts and memories for Arboretum Voices, a nascent - and ongoing - oral-history project designed to expand visitors' understanding of the heritage and evolution of the garden, which has been affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania since 1932 and which became the state's official arboretum in 1988. Voices is funded through a combination of grants, Morris funds, and private donations.

"People have such a connection with this place. It's so visceral," says Barbara Dundon, whose business - I'mtellinya! - is dedicated to recording the real-life stories behind programs and institutions, mostly nonprofit, that offer listeners "an intimacy and sense of immediacy" that comes harder to print media or TV.

"You pick up every nuance in someone's voice," says Dundon, who describes her subjects' connection to the arboretum as "almost a religious experience."

Following up on names provided by Morris staff, she tapes 45- to 90-minute interviews, edits them down to about three minutes, then writes and narrates a script, which is set to music.

Other "voices" in the project include: Carol and Colin Franklin, cofounders of the landscape architecture firm Andropogon, who wrote the arboretum's original master plan almost four decades ago; Carole Haas Gravagno, whose late husband, former Morris board chair F. Otto Haas, known as the arboretum's "second founder," was credited with rescuing it from decline in the 1970s by hiring a director, raising money, and instituting long-range planning; and others with a lengthy association with the garden, such as John Ball, Elizabeth McLean, Ann Reed, Mintern Wright, Peggy Bowditch, and Phoebe Driscoll.

Driscoll's mother was a first cousin once removed of John and Lydia Morris, the wealthy Quaker siblings who created the arboretum, with educational and research components, on the estate they built in 1887 as a summer retreat and called Compton. (It was demolished in 1968.)

"The arboretum is an absolute treasure," says the 83-year-old Driscoll, who recalls her mother's descriptions of Sunday high tea with Lydia, an adventure that included loud and aggressive peacocks roaming the Compton property.

"Lydia would be dressed as a proper Victorian lady, with a brown velvet skirt to the floor. And you would sit in your chair very carefully. You did not wriggle," recounts Driscoll, who inherited a silk bedspread embroidered with - yes - peacocks and other intricate designs that was made for the globe-trotting Lydia in China in 1880.

(Driscoll turned the spread into a stunning coat that has been her go-to formal wrap for charity events.)

A similarly severe portrait of Lydia emerges in Gretchen Asam's memories of her grandfather John Tonkin, a native of Cornwall, England, who, as part of his job as the Morrises' head gardener, designed the arboretum's original Rose Garden.

Asam, 63, a school librarian who grew up in the Philadelphia area who now lives in Presque Isle, Maine, recalls "Granddaddy" describing John as "quiet and interested in plants" and Lydia as "a force of nature."

According to Robert Gutowski, Morris' director of education and visitor experience, John and Lydia were descended from Anthony Morris, who emigrated from England to South Jersey and then to Philadelphia to participate in William Penn's "Holy Experiment." Morris, elected Philadelphia's third mayor, and subsequent generations were influential in politics, commerce, and the social life of their day, amassing fortunes in breweries, ironworks, land trading, and other ventures.

But John and Lydia, Gutowski says, "were also part of the same tradition John Bartram was. You don't go dice-throwing as a Quaker, but to study nature and see the wonder of creation was encouraged."

True Victorians, the pair eagerly explored the world by boat, carriage, and train, collecting museum-worthy artifacts and exotic plants and trees, devoting their time, energy, and fortune to ensuring a future for the world-class arboretum they envisioned.

Today, the award-winning Morris attracts about 130,000 visitors a year, including Shober, who still marvels at the transformation of this place in his lifetime.

More than a half-century ago, he recalls a "wasteland" of an arboretum, a place comparable to the post-World War II landscapes he had seen in Europe. Imagine: The Rose Garden had no roses; the fountain, no water. The place was virtually deserted.

Yet Shober, who was going to Temple Law School at night at the time, was drawn to it, even in winter. He'd sit in the dry fountain, its concrete basin warmed by the sun, and study.

"The whole experience of the arboretum was emotional and protective, a very feel-good experience," he says, one that continues to this day.

Two or three times a week, in between vigorous workouts at Planet Fitness, Shober wanders over to the 92-acre garden - which now adjoins his property - to check out the Oak Allee, the Pennock Flower Walk, or the Rose Garden, which has had water in the fountain and roses in the beds for decades now.

"It's good for me," he says.

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