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Frank Robinson, president and CEO of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, at hisfavorite spot on the grounds. Photo by Jeff Saxman
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During college, Robinson studied for one year at Waseda University in Tokyo.He is pictured with his host family in 1970.
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Robinson had a hand in placing the symbolic welcomepineapple atop the conservatory in March 2003.
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Robinson, right, with former Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardenemployee Richard Waltz, assistant executive director foroperations and visitor services, during the groundbreaking forthe conservatory.
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Robinson and garden patron Lora Robins take a hard-hat tourof the Robins Visitor Center before it opened in 1999. Photocourtesy of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
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Robinson plants with children from New Directions Daycarein May 2009, the first season of the on-site Community KitchenGarden.
It's a brittle January night, definitely not an inviting evening for a walk. But this weekend also marks the finale of a month-long holiday extravaganza that in a decade's time has become as much a seasonal Richmond tradition as Legendary Santa. So, despite the cold, hundreds of bravely bundled families are at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, slowly strolling the garden's 80 acres filled with intricate displays of holiday lights. Twenty-five years ago, it would have been hard to fathom anything like the wildly popular GardenFest of Lights at the corner of Lakeside Avenue and Hilliard Road.
Equally hard to imagine would be much of what exists today. No elegantly imposing brick visitors center. No glittering glass dome of the conservatory. No expanse of meeting spaces in the garden library. Even the sprawling gardens were little more than a well-manicured front yard of the Victorian-era Bloemendaal House.
Not coincidentally, visitors 25 years ago also would not have found Frank Robinson sitting behind the broad, but cluttered, antique desk in his second-floor office of the Bloemendaal House.
A diminutive, bespectacled man, dressed in pressed khakis and a sweater over a gingham shirt, Robinson arrived in Richmond 22 years ago.
When Cathy Lee, former president of the Boxwood Garden Club, first visited the garden, all she remembered was the Bloemendaal House. "There was no ‘wow' factor to it. I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but there wasn't."
The wow factor, Lee suggests, is Robinson.
"I think sometimes you can have the vision, or you know the timeline, but when it comes to the bottom line, you can't make the two happen. He's been able to do both."
Richmond via Japan
A native of Batavia, N.Y., located between Buffalo and Rochester, Robinson gained an early interest in gardening from his grandfather, who grew roses, lilacs and German irises. But he had an aversion to a career in agriculture.
"As I grew up, all the farm kids went off to Cornell [University], to the agricultural school, and I was [adamant] that I wasn't going to go to Cornell with all those guys," says Robinson.
Escape came in part through the American Field Service, a youth exchange organization founded out of the ashes of World War II to foster cultural understanding. "
When AFS assigned me to Japan, I almost didn't go because, you know, who wants to go there, where these horrible people were … and the horrible war they had drawn us into?" Robinson recalls. "To give some context to the time period, my dad and my uncle and my grandfather on Sunday afternoons were still watching movies where the ‘damn Japs' were bombing Pearl Harbor, and ‘damn Japs' was kind of a single word."
But he did go, taking his first trip in 1967 to the country that would become a lifelong inspiration — and play a surprising part in his journey to Richmond.
Rather than finding an island of "damn Japs," he discovered "the amazing appreciation the Japanese had for beauty" that was best exhibited in everyday life. "Even in high school in Hokkaido, you would walk to school in the summertime with these 17-year-old kids, and there would be some beautiful flower blooming in a garden and they would all stop to admire it. You know, 17-year-old guys don't tend to do that. In Japan, they did."
By the time Robinson returned home, he knew just what he wanted to do with his life — and it wasn't horticulture.
After high school, Robinson attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., a tiny school founded by the Quakers, in part as a place to train missionaries for Asian posts. The college had an undergraduate program in Japanese culture and language. Hedging his bets — this was long before Japanese was an in-demand language skill — he also studied psychology.
Good thing, he says, since his first job was working with autistic kids in schools in Asheville, N.C.
stood. He landed in North Carolina after reading about a program being run out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writing a letter of inquiry, hoping it would help him in understanding work he'd done in Indiana. Rather than answer his questions, the UNC program hired him.
"It was probably the first program in the country that mainstreamed kids in the public schools with self-contained classrooms and then integrated them in," says Robinson, who rose to a leadership position in the field in North Carolina.
"I actually hired my wife," he says of his first meeting with JoRoyce, his spouse of 38 years. "I hired her to work for us in a center for multiple handicapped kids — her specialty was deaf and blind children."
But eventually, his work lost luster during an era when the medical community and politicians began to see psychotropic drugs as a cure-all to mental illness and to expensive state institutions.
"There [were] some horrible abuses that were taking place in the state mental institutions, but at the same time, there were few alternatives," he says. "Everything was underfunded because the magic of the pill was unrealistic, and then you had all these community centers and schools and whatever trying to bridge the gap. That was a very difficult sort of burnout scenario for me."
Just 27, Robinson says he felt lost. "My wife said, ‘What are you going to do with the rest of your life?' and I said, ‘I've always wanted to go to horticulture school.' "
It was an ironic shift, considering his rejection of Cornell years earlier. "My parents got to say, ‘We told you to do that years ago.'"
Still, Robinson bucked tradition. He looked only briefly at bigger, well-known programs at Clemson, Cornell and Penn State. At the time, those schools were heavily focused on research related to the floriculture industry — mass-produced annuals and perennial flowers ruled the day.
"It wasn't what I wanted to do," Robinson says. "I really wanted a more hands-on, practical horticultural education. So I ended up going to this little tiny school in western North Carolina."
The two-year certificate program through a state community college was part of an initiative to diversify North Carolina's agriculture industry, long dominated by cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.
It was in this program that Robinson learned to roll up his sleeves, get his hands dirty and sweat. "I was lucky I fell into that program," he says, crediting hands-on instructors. "The only thing we didn't do was mow grass and rake leaves."
It all seemed very practical, except to his father-in-law, who asked the obvious: "One, you're going to back to school and my daughter is supporting you? And two, you're going to a place in Clyde, N.C., as opposed to Clemson? What are you thinking?"
The answer may not have satisfied his father-in-law, but it made perfect sense to Robinson.
"It seemed like it was the natural transition for me," he says. "I didn't have any strategy at all. I wasn't ever looking to be or assuming that I would have any affluence at all. I just loved doing it. It really was about the passion. Horticulturists are down on the ground with the dirt. I just wanted to grow things — I wanted to make gardens."
Detour to New York
The day when he would get his chance to "make gardens" remained a long way off. First, he'd have yet another pivotal encounter with Japanese culture — and an almost Daoistic stroke of bad luck that turned out to be good luck.
Upon finishing his horticulture program, Robinson and his wife turned their eyes back toward western New York, where his parents still lived and were experiencing health issues. He quickly found a job as head gardener at the George Eastman House in Rochester, which was about to undergo renovation inside and out. He interviewed with the foundation director, was offered the job and headed back to North Carolina to pack his bags. When he returned to Rochester, he discovered that the foundation director had been fired and his job had been eliminated.
"So [I] was kind of going g-o-o-o-o-d — I think it was October, it was already snowing. Where are you going to find a job in horticulture?"
Both he and JoRoyce instead landed jobs in retail.
"I was selling discount shoes," at department store Sibley, Lindsay and Curr Co., he says, now chuckling at the significant setback. "JoRoyce worked at McCurdy's. She worked in linens. That sustained us."
One day, the couple read about a traveling exhibition of dolls coming to Rochester's famous Strong National Museum of Play. The exhibition, titled "Blue-eyed Dolls," featured American dolls that had been brought by missionaries to Japan in the decades before World War II.
"When the war broke out, it was culturally unacceptable for the little girls to play with these dolls anymore, and they were supposed to be destroyed or burned," Robinson says.
But love is love, and many little girls had rescued their dolls, hiding them away for decades.
As the exhibition arrived in Rochester, a reception was planned that included many of the women whose dolls were part of the exhibition, and a news article about the event included a plea for anyone in town who spoke Japanese to come help translate.
"And there's this shoe salesman from Sibley's," he says, recalling showing up with a Japanese dictionary in hand.
"Suddenly there's this little lady — her name was Mildred Finebloom — she comes running across the room dragging this little Japanese woman in a kimono yelling, ‘Tell them this! Tell them this!'"
It was a fortunate meeting.
"Mildred became like an adopted mother to us," says Robinson, who served as Finebloom's personal translator for the next week and then as her personal gardener after that. Of his career in shoe sales, Robinson says, "She was convinced I was wasting my time and energy."
She didn't waste hers. A formidable woman in Rochester society, she pulled strings and helped land Robinson an interview at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The job, redeveloping a 1,500-acre campus, was daunting and included everything from maintaining athletic fields to cut flowers for the president's office.
His time in the job also was brief.
"At some point, my wife wanted to come back to the South. She hated the [New York] winters, and, honestly, she was desperate to get out of there," says Robinson, who engaged a headhunter. He soon got a call from a place near Charlottesville called Kluge. Robinson had never heard of Kluge, and the job title sounded a lot like he'd be a servant on a private estate: "Live over the garage and pick up the dog poop and bring in firewood, that sort of thing."
He declined three times before finally agreeing to come for an interview at the somewhat desperate insistence of the caller. It wasn't long before he became very familiar with the name Kluge. John W. Kluge, a media mogul who died in 2010, was once the richest man in America. His wife, Patricia (whom he divorced in 1990), was a famous socialite.
"The reason they wanted me was I had that breadth of experience, everything from the turf maintenance to the private conservatory and greenhouses. I had done that," Robinson says. "I had a staff of 20."
He did not live over a garage.
For him and JoRoyce, it was a job that was both in the middle of everything and completely isolating.
"Talk about another world you'd never experienced before," he says. "If Japan was another world, living in the 1980s among the rich and famous was another world.
"It was a very hard job," he says. "We were all on call 24 hours a day. But it was an extraordinary experience, and it was enriching."
It was also sometimes surreal. In between raising a family — son Alec had been born in Rochester and son Ian was born in Charlottesville — he was helping the Kluges make a name for their estate.
Every week was something new that elevated his role from gardener to something else. "The empress of Iran came after the Shah had been murdered," he recalls. "She was there for the weekend, and we planted a tree in honor of the Shah, and she was there for the ceremony. And I handed her a shovel. This was the sort of context of what life was like there."
And again, life needed to change. Robinson worked nearly four years with the Kluges before taking a position as executive director of the American Horticultural Society in Alexandria.
The Horticultural Society job lured him with the promise of opportunity to build another garden from scratch. "We had 27 acres right on the Potomac River, a beautiful piece of property but undeveloped," he says. "But the fates were such that fundraising was, you know, very challenging ... and so we never quite got around to doing that part of the project."
He settled into a job that essentially transformed him into a publisher of the society's national magazine. Then he heard about the Lewis Ginter job. "My name showed up apparently on a few lists, and I got a call one day asking if I'd be interested in coming down and interviewing for the job," he says. Despite the relative low profile of the new position, Robinson was at once excited by the prospect.
"We came here thinking we'd be here three years, too, and find something else," says Robinson, sitting back and glancing out the window of his office overlooking the Bloemendaal House garden with its English-style walk lined with tiny shrubs leading to a whitewashed gazebo. "This garden was the only completed garden we had. Where the gazebo is, is where the garden ended."
Making the ‘Valley of Flowers'
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, all 80 acres, was owned by tobacco and real estate magnate Col. Lewis Ginter and later was home to his niece, philanthropist Grace Arents, whose dream it was to see Bloemendaal — Dutch for "valley of flowers" — turned into a park in tribute to her uncle.
She left the property to the city in 1926 when she died, and her dream remained unrealized for nearly 60 years.
In 1984, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden at last became a reality, largely with the financial momentum of one man, Lawrence Lewis, an heir to the fortune of Florida railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. Lewis, a philanthropist but also a very driven man, had been the force behind the development of St. Augustine, Fla., and of Flagler College there. By the 1980s, he'd been talked into putting some of his unrelenting energy into charitable deeds in his hometown of Richmond.
Though a board governed the garden, Robinson says it was quite clear who was in charge when he arrived.
"Lawrence was a very demanding man," he recalls. "He was here every day — and he did not understand gardens or the creations of gardens and what it takes. So we had to be on our toes."
Used to brick-and-mortar projects, Lewis had little patience for seasons and saplings.
"He wanted to know why it was taking so long! Why it wasn't done! When are we doing the dedication!" Robinson says, pounding his fist on the table to reenact Lewis' passion.
But Lewis was generous as well, giving $1 million to establish the foundation and to create the Flagler Garden, a magical woodland park along Ginter's eastern perimeter.
Like a bloom, Lewis at last opened to the warmth of the place he helped create.
"Near the end of his life, his wife called one afternoon and said Lawrence would like to see the garden one more time," Robinson says. He recalls meeting Lewis in the parking lot to give him a tour in the foundation's rickety golf cart. "The clutch wasn't good. You would push the pedal in and it would go pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, and then it would go. Here was a man who was literally dying of cancer and very wane and weak; and so we spent probably about an hour driving around the garden. He kept wanting to see it time and again."
At last, Lewis asked Robinson to return him to his car.
He was a man who was proudly a curmudgeon, Robinson says, assuming a growling voice to recall Lewis' parting words: "Well, I'm not going to give you another garden, but I damn well might buy you a new golf cart. He was terrifying at one level, but he was also a funny guy."
A Beautiful Partnership
If Lewis was a looming figure in Robinson's early history with the garden, Lora Robins was his foil. The wife of Claiborne Robins Sr., she'd also been involved with the garden from its founding in the 1980s and had always been hands-on.
"Lora Robins was a force unto herself," Robinson says, recalling that it had been about two months since his February 1992 arrival before she made her presence known to him.
"One day I got a call on my radio and they said Mrs. Robins is in your office and she would like to meet you," Robinson says, his voice dropping dramatically with that last revelation. "She was sitting here and she said, ‘Well, since you haven't come to see me, I've decided to come and see you.' "
There was a sparkle to her, and a spark between the two of them, but Robins, who was 80 at the time, wasn't giving ground in that first meeting.
"She said, ‘I came here for one purpose and that is to tell you that you should not waste your time coming and asking me for money,' " says Robinson, who politely promised not to do so.
And what she'd done already was substantial: a $1 million match to the Flagler Foundation's challenge grant the year before.
By the end of the meeting, Robinson says, the two had "just hit it off," and she decided to accompany him to an executive board meeting, where one thing led to another. After Robinson proposed that the board fund the creation of a small concession area, Robins pulled out her checkbook and inked a check for $35,000. Within days she'd upped the amount to $70,000. And by the time it was all over, Robinson's idea for a few tables, a coffee maker and a microwave had grown to the 70-seat Lora and Claiborne Robins Tea House with full-service dining.
"We developed over the years a very, very unique and wonderful friendship and appreciation of one another," says Robinson, who sees Robins as the garden's true spirit.
‘But This Is Richmond'
When Robinson arrived, a master plan for the future of Lewis Ginter had the gardens looking more like Epcot Center than a botanical garden.
In these renderings, three massive conservatories crowd out green space, and a visitors center that looks more like a monorail station arcs around the perimeter. Circular lakes add to the space-age look.
"There was a lot of emphasis put on grand buildings," says Robinson, who led an effort to refine the plan with a renewed emphasis on the gardens. Ironically, the grandeur of the plan was something that impressed Robinson when he was considering coming here.
"But it quickly became clear to me that a lot of people didn't have confidence in that plan," he says. "Not publicly. Publicly everybody said, ‘We're going to build a world-class botanical garden.' " Then, assuming a sotto voce, he says, "privately they would go, ‘But this is Richmond.' I was from New York, and I was going, ‘what does that mean?' "
The new plan, greatly scaled back, met far more with Robins' vision for the future.
So much so that she took the important step of kicking her fellow big-money donors in the rear to get them started giving. "She wasn't afraid to be a pioneer, so as the newer plan evolved, she was willing to make the first big gift to start the visitors center," he says.
That started as $3 million — from a woman who'd just a few years earlier promised not a penny more — and eventually became $7 million as Robins put her money into ensuring that the facility would meet future needs. "She would say, ‘We've got to make it right. My name's going to be on it. I want to have it right.' "
As other donors saw her commitment, they began loosening their own purse strings. Within 10 years, the garden had raised $42 million. After Robins, "it was just sequential; all the folks who'd seen something on the plan that they were personally interested in or loved gave something. The Gottwalds funded the conservatory, the Masseys got behind the education complex, and the Cochrane family underwrote the Rose Garden.
"It just kept on flowing," says Robinson. "Anne Massey gave the greenhouses 48 hours after Lora Robins gave the money for the visitors center. They all had the capacity and they all had the desire. They just needed the spark to make it happen."
Shortly before Robins' 2010 death, Robinson asked his partner in crime what kept her motivated and why she chose Lewis Ginter — and him — as her last big project.
"She said, ‘I've always loved gardens.' That's as straightforward as it needed to be for her."
The Need for Gardens
The reason why communities need gardens is not so straightforward, though. It's a question Robinson says he's answered "a thousand times" but rarely the same way.
One reason is practical. Communities need gardens like Lewis Ginter as training grounds for organizations such as garden clubs and master gardeners. Virginia's climate is in flux from season to season, and the garden's job is never done.
As people become more environmentally conscious, it also becomes a place for experimenting with new methods outside the comfort zone of manicured boxwoods and azaleas or seas of chemically sustained lawns.
It's all these things.
In recent years, though, Robinson has begun to settle on a new answer: solace.
"I think the feedback from our visitors has increased considerably about this being a haven, a retreat, a place of peace and calm since the economic collapse," he says. "We hear that all the time now. And we hear that from people of all ages — from parents with children who have various kinds of challenges, from returning veterans from the war with PTSD and brain injuries — that this is a place that they find peace."
"Twenty years ago, we would not have identified that as a major part of what we are to the community," Robinson says. "But today, it is very real."
For nobody is that meaning more real than it is for Robinson.
During the summer of 2003, Robinson, who was out of town on a business trip, received a call that changed his life.
It was about his older son, Alec. "He was in a bizarre automobile accident in Goochland County — driving 35 mph to meet a friend at a movie and went off the road through a livestock fence," Robinson says, recounting the details of the night that Alec died. He was just 19 and fresh from his first year at James Madison University.
"There was no explanation why. They assume either a deer ran in front of him or something like that," Robinson says. "But one of the boards of the fence came through the driver's window and hit him...and just killed him instantly."
It was as if the world had come to a stop for Robinson.
"You search for answers and try to make sense of something like that," he says. "He was very interested in photography and we think he probably would be a National Geographic photographer had he...he would be in the jungles of Africa and taking all kinds of wonderful pictures of things there."
After Alec's death, Robinson threw himself into the garden, or more accurately, the garden threw itself back at him.
"Life gets complicated," he says. "When Alec died, the support that came from the donors and the staff and the volunteers, it was extraordinary. It was what got us through those really tough couple of years beyond his death. It was that that sustained us."
And that salvation allowed Robinson to offer hope to others.
The night Alec died, Robinson had to answer another difficult phone call. This one came from Virginia Beach-based LifeNet, the organ agency that pairs with Richmond's UNOS to offer life after tragedy.
"With Alec, he was already dead when the EMTs got there, so his major organs couldn't be harvested, but a lot of his tissues and bones were [of use]," Robinson says. "So his corneas, various major bones of the arms and legs, skin grafts and then connective tissues in the knees and things like that. He was able to donate those things."
The call was a numbing experience, he recalls.
"Because of the litigious nature of our society, you have to actually approve each one of those kinds of donations," he says. "So it's basically like walking through a dissection of your child."
But in the end, the experience did offer a small measure of comfort. And Robinson has remained a supporter. Each year for the past five years, Lewis Ginter has transformed itself into a memorial garden of sorts for an annual gathering of LifeNet survivor families.
But for true solace, Robinson returned to another place of gardens a world away. Japan again called to him.
In the years after Alec's death, Robinson became aware of strange occurrences that were at once unsettling and reassuring.
"We had these events that kept happening to us that couldn't be explained," he says. "Coins showing up in unusual places — gosh, that was the most common of them. Fragrances that would come to you. Dreams that were unlike any other dreams that you'd ever had. You wonder if you're losing your mind or if you're making these things up.
"As they continued to happen, I became more curious about them and about whether other people experienced them or not," he says. "And I found that they were really pretty universal kinds of experiences. But no one talked about them because nobody wanted to be defined as crazy. I felt compelled to document them and ultimately to start to write about them."
At the insistence of friends, and with the help of a grant from the Community Foundation, Robinson traveled to Japan, where he set about writing his recollections and documenting his and others' experiences.
Japan, he says, "was kind of an obvious place to go."
Alec's Legacy is a thin, but powerful, testament to a father's grief and joy. It's also, he says, meant as a conversation starter.
"When people do begin to talk about it, that's [when] everyone says it's real," Robinson says. "We need to stick by those things. And there's so much discomfort around those things. That's the thing. People don't find comfort in it because they think they shouldn't."
Comfort is what Jack Berry needed in 2006. Known to Richmonders as the head of Venture Richmond, Berry lost his son Brooks that year in a freak accident involving a fall down stairs.
"I barely knew Frank before 2006. I knew him professionally a little bit, but, you know, I didn't know him very well," Berry says. And yet, like one of those coins Robinson knows that his son leaves for him for comfort, Robinson turned up just when Berry needed him. "I'll never forget walking into the living room and I'm seeing him there and feeling so grateful that a person I barely knew would come to my rescue."
It's a role that Robinson assumes for those who've lost children.
For Berry, that willingness helped him survive.
"I latched onto Frank," he says. We'd cry together. He was a couple years ahead of me on this path that I was on. He taught me that it's OK to cry every day, even at the most inappropriate times, because tears are simply an expression of love. He taught me to speak often about my son — to keep his memory alive — even if it makes other people uncomfortable."
Wrapped in Comfort
It's late January. The last strings of lights from GardenFest have been packed away, and the throngs of visitors have receded. With its barren branches and ground cracked from frost, the dormant garden is a place of potential, of life to come. But it's always a place of comfort for Robinson.
Wrapped in a knee-length woolen coat, he walks with short, confident steps along a path leading from the Bloemendaal House toward the visitors center.
"This is like my backyard," Robinson says of the garden that's been his second home for more than two decades. "The kids, because we lived [in a house nearby] for six months, they could ride their tricycles over here or whatever.
"They have these memories of what this place was like in the early days. It was theirs. We didn't have thousands of people walking through on a daily basis. And they got to watch all the big construction vehicles."
He pauses and steps off the path. Assuming a place between a pair of hinoki cypress trees — twin, towering Japanese conifers — he looks small, but content. He smiles and comments on the placement of the two trees.
Of all the places of beauty within Lewis Ginter, of all the blooms and buds, this, he says, is his favorite spot in the garden.
Likely planted by Grace Arents in the 1920s, one conifer has a bowed trunk that arcs like an upside-down question mark and disappears into layers of blue-green needles.
"They have these beautiful copper trunks on them. They're just the perfect distance from one another," Robinson says, hands thrust in his deep coat pockets. "There's just something very peaceful about standing between them, and I can't explain. It's completely irrational."