JARS v63n2 - In Memoriam: Jim Gerdemann

In Memoriam: Jim Gerdemann
Tadeusz Dauksza

The rural heritage of the land in the Midwest area (the breadbasket of United States) with its small towns, agricultural communities, 19th and early 20th century immigration, the manufacturing base, and strong Catholic influence in the big cities have produced many great Americans that were influenced by those traditional Midwestern lifestyles and values which espouse hard work, commitment to humanity, and love of gardening; such was James Wessel Gerdemann.

Jim was born in Pendleton, Mo. (55 miles west of St. Louis) in 1921. At an early age he developed a passion for growing plants, and when visiting St. Louis on weekly runs to replenish the stock for the family store, his father made sure that Jim would have the opportunity to make a stop at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Thus his passion in the garden, his visits to the botanical garden, and his hard work (such as counting seeds at the herbarium and being a waiter) while attending college resulted in obtaining a degree in botany from the University of Missouri.

While in college an opportunity arose for Jim when he was able to land a job and work during the summer periods for the U.S. Forest Service trying to control pine rust in the forests of Oregon. Thus an appreciation of the "native" flora and fauna of Oregon and its climate was born.

After graduation Jim proceeded to obtain a master's degree in plant pathology and was offered a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

After World War II ended Jim married Janice Olbrich in 1949 and started a family while pursuing his career in Illinois. Since the state of Illinois grows many crops like corn and soybeans, most of Jim's research and teaching was in the field of cultivated soils, their association in arbuscular mycorrhizas, and other fungi. Jim's knowledge, dedication and the numerous papers he published for the scholarly mycology publications and his influence on mycologists and plant societies will be with us for a long time.

Those banana belt days while in Oregon as a young man influenced Jim and his family to take many a vacation days to the "wilds" of Oregon to do some camping, hiking, and observing the natural wonders in that corner of the United States. Somewhere during those visits Jim was bitten by that rhododendron "bug" which resulted in a lifetime-long affair with that plant and continued until Jim was called to "Rhododendron Heaven" on Dec 19, 2008. He was 87.

During his stay in Illinois Jim started growing rhododendrons in his garden. He joined the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society in 1965, and drove 150 miles to attend meetings of the Midwest Chapter, participating in numerous flower shows, recruited members and establishing numerous friendships at the University of Illinois. Jim's generous assistance with time, plant sources and knowledge resulted in many research papers and experiments for the ARS that were done by his very close friend Don Paden. Don was introduced to the wonderful world of rhododendrons by Jim and was always "dragged" to those chapter meetings.

Upon retirement in 1981, Jim and his wife left the state of Illinois and moved to the village of Yachats, Oregon. Nestled between lush forested mountains and the "lapping" waves of the Pacific Ocean it provided Jim and Janice with an ideal place for rest, relaxation, and renewal. Though they were renewed by the move, they had little time to rest in what became their new garden. Purchasing an acre of spruce and hemlock, building a house on this land, the Gerdemann's started their botanical garden. They gradually expanded the garden to almost four acres. The garden is a treasure of diversity of plants not normally grown in the region.

Jim and his wonderful garden became well known to members of the ARS and he welcomed visitors to his home and garden at any time. How peaceful it was to wander with Jim though the garden as he pointed out so many unusual plants, many of which would not normally thrive so far north. His garden was in a wonderful microclimate where it seldom had frost, even when areas around him were in a deep freeze. Jim was knowledgeable enough to take advantage of the nature around him and to be able to grow that extraordinarily plant in just the right spot for it to thrive.

But most of all we will remember the exceptionally special man was that Jim. He was always a teacher, a mentor and a friend to all who knew him. He will be sorely missed!

Jim's and Janice's vision, dedication and hard work will not be lost, as their Eden will be preserved for future generations. The legacy continues.