By Charlene Bielema
I remember reading long ago a quote that likened the death of an elderly person to the loss of a tall, towering tree — one that stood out in a grand manner in the landscape of a city’s history.
I think of that quote now in the wake of 97-year-old Frances Bickelhaupt’s death last weekend.
Bickelhaupt, along with her husband, Bob, founded the Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton, dedicating more than 40 years of their lives to the mission of creating a public garden that with its 600 conifers and 800 other plants, bushes and trees is considered one of America’s greatest outdoor museums.
Several years ago, a few years before Bob’s death, I had the opportunity to sit down with this amazing couple at their home on the grounds of the arboretum just after their daughter, Francie, took me on a guided tour of the arb.
We sat at a table and I listened to the couple tell their story of why they decided to create an arboretum so many years ago.
They told the story of how the Dutch elm trees in Clinton, which at that time were the most commonly planted trees in the city, were dying from Dutch elm disease. I will always remember that interview and how Bob became emotional when talking about the effects of that disease on the city’s landscape. It led them, they explained, to become determined to learn more about botany, visit botanical centers and arboretums and take classes on the subject.
They continued to work toward the goal of selecting appropriate trees with the proper space to prevent disease from ravaging the city landscape ever again.
In the early 1970s, Bob resigned from his automobile business and they focused their time developing the dream. They planted trees and kept detailed records; dealt with weather-related plant issues; and through outreach, shared what they had learned by teaching others.
They started with 10 acres, but grew the arboretum — which continues to operate as a private foundation and is endowed in perpetuity as a gift to Clinton — to 14 acres. Thousands of people tour the landmark each year; many others take part in specially planned programs, weddings and events such as Arts at the Arb.
As a couple, Bob and Frances were members of many organizations, including the International Society of Arboriculture, APGA, Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, Municipal Arborists, Urban Foresters, American and Midwest Midwest Hosta Society, International Lilac Society and Ornamental Crabapple Society and are charter members of American Conifer Society. They received many awards for their work from educational institutions and national and state agencies.
The couple’s connection to the community is both deep and wide with their creation of the arb, family ties and civic involvement — all of which will no doubt be remembered at an upcoming joint celebration of life service planned for next week.
They are a couple to be forever remembered for their legacy and — like two beautiful, long-lived trees — the lasting impressions they made on this city.
Charlene Bielema is the Editor of the Clinton Herald. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.