Honoring the Life of Joe Oppe
After four years in the U.S. Navy, and earning his BS from Marietta College and MS in botany from the University of Idaho, Joe spent the years 1960 until retirement in 2004 in leadership positions as Horticulturist/Botanist or Executive Director at the Dawes Arboretum, Denver Botanic Gardens, Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, Arboretum at Flagstaff, Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, Mounts Botanical Garden, and Des Moines Botanical Center and City Parks Dept. That certainly is a professional lifetime working in public gardens. Even after retirement he continued to work as a public garden consultant with many organizations, gardens and individual clients that valued his knowledge and expertise.
Even with all the responsibilities and challenges of his management positions Joe made the time to be active in many professional organizations such as the American Association of Museums, American Horticultural Society, American Society for Horticultural Science and many other organizations and plant societies. Without doubt his contributions to the establishment and evolution of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (AABGA) should receive most credit and thanks from all past and present members of this association, now called the American Public Garden Association (APGA). Joe was a leader and/or officer or board member of many different organizations but his love and work for AAGBA was tops on his list of personal commitments. He was a member from 1962 until 1995. He served multiple years on the following committees: Long-Range Planning, Editorial, Annual Meetings, Awards, By-Laws, Executive and other ad hoc committees. He held leadership Board positions including Secretary/Treasurer, Vice-President, and President. For his thirty plus years of service he was rewarded with the Honorary Life Member status in 1995 which he cherished for the rest of his life, mentioning it often as his most valued recognition!
I must add a personal note at this point. While the above resume shows the professional experiences and accomplishments of Joe’s life, it was his personal traits/characteristics that made him our beloved JOE; one unique, incomparable and enigmatic man until you really got to know him well. He had a passion for life and reveled every time he could help someone, be they family, friends of colleagues. My first AABGA meeting was in 1980. I met Joe in the hospitality room and his personal welcome is still clear in my mind. Here was one of the leaders of the organization talking to a newcomer and he took me around the room and introduced me to Fred Widmoyer, Francis Ching, Dick Lighty and other notable members. I felt like I’d joined the royalty of AABGA. Those men were sometimes looked at as the ‘mavericks committee’ but I saw visionaries, developers and managers of an organization in its infancy. I can guarantee you that APGA would not be where it is today without the leadership of these individuals and many others that they mentored. I always sought their counsel when I had any question and challenge and they were helpful in every instance. For some reason I developed a special relationship with Joe even though I met with Francis many times, Fred a few, and Dick mainly at annual meetings. Over the past thirty years I grew closer and closer to Joe and his first wife Freda of 46 years and, since 2001, his second wife Barbara. What a lucky man he was to have two very special ladies in his life that loved him, and yes, tolerated his idiosyncrasies. He was one fantastic mentor and teacher, always willing to help on professional issues or personal situations. We probably corresponded, chatted by phone and later on by email for all the years of our friendship, and during the last two years of his life, during which we both had health problems, we communicated almost daily. We visited Joe and Barbara on our way to the Cleveland Clinic for surgery and they came up to cheer me up during my hospital stay. That’s one dedicated and true friend. I consider a ‘true’ friend one whose short-comings are well known but whom you love him anyway. I know we thought of each other in those terms!
I mentioned Joe’s idiosyncrasies. I’ll call them his negative virtues. That’s not an oxymoron in his case. He was highly opinionated, argumentative, candid to the point of being blunt, sometimes irascible, irreconcilable, irrefragable, irreverent, but irreplaceable. He was the ‘literary’ antagonist but a lot of this was an act, while some quite real. He would say things to get a reaction from his wife Freda, my wife Cathy or most anyone else in the audience. He was thrilled when the verbal combat started and it usually took several people to equal his zeal and position on an issue, even if he himself didn’t believe in the position he would take. Can you imagine him saying in a social situation with mainly professional women that “women can’t drive responsibly and probably shouldn’t run a garden.” He did things like that and then would say how much he admired and respected Susan Lathrop, Judy Zuk, all the women at Swarthmore, and the many women that held leadership positions in AABGA then and now. He thrived on the debates and many of his statements made one pause and think about his points of a given issue. I witnessed many of these discussions and sometimes would ask him why he did this or that. Often he would just chuckle and say “wasn’t that fun”, not revealing what he truly believed. Knowing his gentleness, love of people, and integrity I know lots of his debates and positions were simply for fun and for enjoyable stimulation for all involved. He was one incomparable and unique character and why so many friends and colleagues loved him!
I would be remiss not to mention his interests in American history, politics, and fishing. The latter was his passion as a hobby. We was a superb fly-fisherman and he went many times each year when healthy. My first fly-fishing lesson was from Joe on his beloved streams and rivers in Idaho. The tales I could tell about those trips would take a small book. He was such a professional with all his ultimate gear and I’d walk into the river in tennis shoes and shorts, freezing all the time, and try and try with little success. He would say to me, “Smith I’ve taught you all you know about fly-fishing but you’re not doing very well.” Then he would let out a big laugh and add “But I didn’t teach you all I know.” We fished many times together, even in the Keys a few years ago and he was so happy when fishing and helping the less skilled.
I spoke to Joe the day before his passing and had several recent emails from him that I will save and cherish. His passing was unexpected but his health was declining during the last couple of years and he could not do all the physical things that he loved – fishing, gardening, and traveling. He did continue helping family and friends and his mind was so sharp and his knowledge so vast that he counseled many of us in the public garden profession to his last day. Each day since then I find myself going to the phone or computer to contact my friend Joe. I’m sure he is fishing somewhere on the St. Joe or even a finer trout stream. I can only value his welcoming me into the profession, his long-term advice and counsel, and his perpetual friendship. What a character and what an inspiration to those he touched and to his love of his profession, especially the AABGA (APGA). We will miss you friend but never forget you!
G. Shannon Smith, Ph.D.
AABGA member 1980-2005
Emeritus Director of Horticulture, Mo. Botanical Garden