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Take Note: Dr. Kim Steiner looks back on the decades-long process of planning and building the Penn State Arboretum

WPSU Kim Steiner via PSU.edu
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Kim Steiner

On this episode of Take Note, Dr. Kim Steiner – the visionary and founding director of The Arboretum at Penn State joins us to look at this community treasure from inception nearly 50 years ago to its newest addition and what’s ahead for visitors and researchers to this living experiment.

Here is that interview:

Carolyn Donaldson  
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Carolyn Donaldson. In today's Take Note, we're joined by Dr. Kim Steiner, the Arboretum's founding director and visionary who retired in June, after nearly five decades as professor of forest biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Kim, thank you so much for joining us.

Kim Steiner 
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Carolyn Donaldson  
I understand that you've been involved in arboreta, virtually your entire career. And when you were completing your doctorate in forest genetics at Michigan State University, you interviewed for a scientist position at the former Carrie Arboretum of the New York Botanical Garden. So how do we end up at Penn State?

Kim Steiner 
Well, actually not virtually my entire career, my entire career. I was cleaning out my lab recently, I discovered some old plant specimens that I had collected and identified, and pressed, and mounted on herbarium sheets as a freshman at Colorado State University. And I donated those to our herbarium here. And there's not too much difference between a dried collection of dried plants and a collection of living plants. I mean, it's kind of the same thing from an intellectual perspective. So now that's a long, long standing interest. So in '74, my fellowship at Michigan State had run its course. And I'd done everything I needed for the PhD except complete writing the dissertation. I was doing a stint in the army for Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, finishing up my obligation. And we had a young child, less than two years old. My wife was pregnant, we didn't have any money. And, of course, I was desperate find a job. So I had interviewed at a couple of places in New York Botanical Garden, and a faculty position at University of New Hampshire. Both scientists positions that required a PhD, which I hadn't quite completed. And I don't know whether that was part of it, but I didn't get those two jobs. But in May, I was a late applicant for a job here at Penn State. And they accepted my application. They interviewed me and offered me the job. After the New York Botanical Garden, the University of New Hampshire, because actually I was less excited about those two positions. And then I was the Penn State job. And it really appealed to me. And I assume I appealed to them. And I think that's always the best thing, when you have this sort of mutual appeal and desire to work there, not just, you know, "well, yeah, I'd like to have that job." But eager to have it. And so came here, started September 1, 1974. And didn't look back. And I am just so pleased that we came here. We were both from distant places elsewhere, never expected to work in the east at all. And we love it here. It's been a great place to raise a family.

Carolyn Donaldson  
That's great. I understand it wasn't really long after you joined the faculty and your teaching and researching position, that the university leaders actually looked at you and said, "Come and sit on the committee, we've been looking for quite a while at this thing called an arboretum." Is that right?

Kim Steiner 
Well, I don't...I got a letter from the provost at that time, Russell Larson, in spring or late winter of '75. I don't think he knew me from Adam. But he probably had asked the Dean of Ag and the Dean asked my Director of School Forest Resources for a recommendation, and they put my name up. And that's how I got it. Yeah, so I joined that effort in '75. But it had been underway for a few years by then, in fact, they done kind of the bulk of their work. They'd already produced a report, I think, in '72, or '73. And at that point, it was kind of a matter of finding the money or hoping it came along. And so that's, well, you know, the committee puttered along for another 10 or 12 years, perhaps meeting maybe once a year. But the money never materialized. And, and it wasn't really even a thought on the committee's part that they could do something to raise that money

Carolyn Donaldson  
Had the land kind of been commissioned?

Kim Steiner 
That's a good point, Carolyn...because that was a critical point, actually. Because the plan that they were recommending was to put an arboretum on the Mitchell tract, which is where the gardens are right now, where the H. O. Smith Botanic Gardens are but the university didn't own The Mitchell tract that at that point. And it didn't acquire it until 1989. So that was, that was something that held them back. Maybe fortunately, because I think if they'd had that...if we'd had the Mitchell tract, at that point, we would have started to kind of cobble something together. AndI think having a kind of an arboretum, sort of a low level arboretum, just a collection of things that we put together from research. Stuff that was extra. It probably would have hindered our ability to raise money, you know, for something big. Because I think donors like to do something transformational, and, you know, what are you gonna do with that?

Carolyn Donaldson  
Right.

Kim Steiner 
And that's just speculation. I don't really know.

Carolyn Donaldson  
So from committee person, to then I understand in 1999, you were named to Director of the Committee. And was there movement then?

Kim Steiner 
New committee actually, Carolyn.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Okay.

Kim Steiner 
So after the university acquired the Mitchell tract and '89...a little bit after that in...so I was Interim Director of the School of Forest Resources in '93, and '94. And then early in '94, Steve Wallner, who was the Department Head in Horticulture at the time, came to me with a plan, an idea, to resurrect a new committee. A committee, a task force, to look at the feasibility of building an arboretum, probably on the Mitchell tract. And talked about with me and asked me for recommendations and who I thought should be on the committee. And that committee, you know, sorta was born at that time was appointed by Jim Wagner, who was the Assistant Vice President in the Vice President for Businesses Office. And I think actually, the idea might have originated there in Gary Schultz's office. I'll have to ask some time to see. See how all that came about. Maybe talk to Lam Hood, who was Dean of Ag at the time. But in any event, Steve was the standard bearer for the project and saw it through to its completion. In Well, the beginning of July in 1995, July 3, we issued our reports and it up to Gary Schultz. President as I recall, and Provost. And it was, you know, recommending that we build an arboretum on that plot of land. And sort of making a case for it as best we could in 10 or 12 pages.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Sure.

Kim Steiner 
And then Steve left to take a job at a different university. He left, actually, on July 1st. I think he assumed his new position on July 1st. So he was gone. But shortly after that, Gary Schultz wrote back to Steve and proposed that they meet and talk about this. But it didn't happen. It didn't happen. And in late summer, early fall of that year, I was beginning to wonder what had happened to the project. And I asked the committee to reconvene and and see if anybody knew anything. And suggested that we...nobody did, and I suggested we pursue it with the administration and asked if somebody would please lead the effort (laugh). And nobody wanted the job (laugh). So I took it.

Carolyn Donaldson  
There you go.

Kim Steiner 
And called Gary Schultz's office. Joan Coval was his administrative assistant at the time and asked to meet with with Gary. Which we did. We met with Gary and John Brighton, the Provost, and Neil Porterfield, Dean of Arts and Architecture, and my Dean in Ag, Jim Starling and a couple of others in Old Main to present our ideas and get their response to it. And shortly after that, maybe that meeting, but shortly after that, in a memo, I asked Gary to fund a study, a real proper study to figure out what we could do. How much it would cost. What it would take the staff it. And what would be our sort of annual operating expenses, what what would it cost to maintain it? Which, you know, you have to hire a consultant to do that.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Aboslutely.

Kim Steiner 
And, and he agreed. I don't know whether Gary had, you know, sort of hoped things would go that direction all along. I'm not sure, but he was helpful then and he was helpful after that in a great great many ways. But I think what was key at that point was that the university was about to undergo a new master plan for the campus.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Okay.

Kim Steiner 
That became the University Park Campus Master Plan, which was completed in 1999. And we knew, in fact, the administration had told us that if the arboretum was going to go anywhere, it had to be, you know, part of a broader plan, approved by the university. So here comes a planning exercise, just at the time when we wanted to do this. And so we did, we engaged a consultant. And we outlined 370 acres, and basically told Johnson and Johnson and Roy, who were doing the University Park Campus Master Plan, that this is going to be the arboretum. And they left it alone, they just drew A boundary around that great big blank space and said, "We're not going to do any planning for this area, because it's part of a separate planning effort."

Carolyn Donaldson  
Put it right in there.

Kim Steiner 
Great. And good timing. The timing was perfect.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Absolutely.

Kim Steiner 
And it might, you know, nothing would have happened if it hadn't been for that. And both of those were completed in the spring of '99. Right at the same time. And we sort of, by default, got the Board of Trustees approved the idea of having an arboretum there.

Carolyn Donaldson  
So that was on paper and approved, but there was a long way to go then to get the money to fund this.

Kim Steiner 
Yeah.

Carolyn Donaldson  
And walk us through that. Tell us about how that happened.

Kim Steiner 
You know, I mean, that was a big unknown, where the money was going to come from. And we, the group that I was chairing, had no idea whether Graham Spanier would even support it. So we made a presentation to Graham and and his leadership team in I think March of '99. Of course, there was a lot of discussion about it. A lot of give and take. I recall Tim Curley asking "if you know, if we built this, would this be the best in the Big 10?" Ya know, best arboretums. I mean, there was that sort of thing that was sort of bantered around. And the cost...which on paper, on the plan that we'd commissioned was $40 million.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Wow.

Kim Steiner 
To the do whole thing.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Okay.

Kim Steiner 
It was finally decided that we could go ahead, if we could get a single gift of $10 million. So that was, you know, that was the threshold. In other words, Graham was saying, "you can't raise money $100 at a time or $1,000 at a time for a project that will never materialize if you don't get at least say $10 million. So, and I think that was altogether reasonable. But that was the you know, that was the challenge that was was put out there. Find $10 million.

Carolyn Donaldson  
And can you talk to us about that generous donor. I understand and the entire donor family that came through many years later, right?

Kim Steiner 
Many years later. Yeah, it was kind of a long, hard pull. I had some really good allies in the administration. Bob Steele, who was the Dean of Ag by that time and Rod Kirsch, Vice President for Development. And Gary Schultz, were extremely helpful through the process. We did a lot of presentations. We had two city lights events with the Alumni Association, one along with gardens. One at the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, which was being run by one of our alumni. And a number of others talks with many local groups, hoping to find, you know, this unknown person who might have $10 million she's willing to give us.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Sure.

Kim Steiner 
And finally, in 2006, Skip Smith, who had been watching us all along. In fact, he came to one of our earliest events, anonymously. And he came forward and said, he'll do it. Yeah.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Wow. And named in honor of his father.

Kim Steiner 
Of his father. Yeah. He didn't ask anything for himself.

Carolyn Donaldson  
That's very noble.

Kim Steiner 
His father and mother and two deceased wives.

Carolyn Donaldson  
That's amazing. That's wonderful. If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Carolyn Donaldson. My guest is Kim Steiner, Dr. Kim Steiner, the Arboretum's founding director, who retired this past June after nearly five decades as Professor forest biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, all at the same time, directing the Arboretum. So we've learned the history. We learned, we learned that money was raised. And let's fast forward down to the groundbreaking. And how that happened then back in...bring us up to speed a little bit more on the dates of those initial times after funding was secured.

Kim Steiner 
Well, of course Skip's gift...I mean, we had to go into more planning with that gift. And we had to have...we had to figure out what we would do with $10 million, exactly. What exactly we would do. And part of that, of course, had to be set aside into an endowment to support operations. So there were a lot of questions surrounding that. And we hired MTR out of Pittsburgh to help us through that process. And eventually, of course, that led to construction, which was completed in August of 2009. It wasn't like a sharp completion date. By that time, we were more or less open to the public and people were coming in.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Dedicated then in 2010, officially, and then you added even onto that, within five years. You decided that there was a greater need for families to even have a little more place for themselves.

Kim Steiner 
Yeah, so. Well, we weren't done with the initial construction, more always...more than we wanted to do and still is. So the strategy was to...as we went forward, and I think that will continue in the future, is to look for the opportunities to complete the plan that seem most fundable. And of course, all of this is from private philanthropy. So what would be most attractive to donors. And we were told, and we knew from our own experiences that children's gardens are very appealing things and so that's what we pursued next. We got our money, we we were actually Skip again, but also adding Helen Hence, were the big donors for that project and many other people as well. We hired a firm out of Fort Collins, Colorado, Didier Design Studios, design studios, and Emmanuel Didier who also did the design for the pollinator and bird garden...is a remarkable person. He's a Frenchman, by birth, but extremely creative. And, and really good with children's gardens. It was amazing his perspective on this project. And we wanted something completely different from what other people do. What other gardens do. You'll see a lot that sort of had to have sort of a playground feel to them. Or maybe an overly didactic feel where there signs are replaced, and you know, little exercises where you're supposed to learn something. We have that stuff built in. I mean, there's a lot kind of underneath the design that has tremendous educational value. But you can also walk into that space and feel comfortable not learning anything, and just enjoying it for what it is. And kids enjoy playing there. So we didn't want a playground, but we wanted a space where children would want to come back. And what I particularly thought would be neat is if you have you know, adults that have deep interests, I think, typically acquire those early in childhood through some...through a relative, or some event, or some activity. Maybe they did once or maybe routinely, but and maybe they don't remember these things. But I think those early experiences shape our interests, a great deal. And what we were hoping with this garden is that we would shape the interests of children in unknown and unpredictable ways, but in the direction of a love of plants, love of nature, love of the outdoors.

Carolyn Donaldson  
And I think that's truly evidenced in every daily visit that many of us who are listening here, take and enjoy with our own children and grandchildren. And doubling the popularity of The Arboretum certainly at that point, in the attendance factors, So that really helped also. So I want to get to the newest addition because this is really something that came towards the closure of your 50 years. Remember folks, 50 years of this vision and this development and you've heard the long, the long arduous journey that it took. So what we just witnessed in June with the the Pollinators and the Bird Garden opening. A beautiful facility, and it is so well planned and so well researched, right? This is a living experiment that is taking place.

Kim Steiner 
We had a pollinator garden in the first phase. If you may...people may remember the two circular walks that were between the Esplanade and the Rose and Fragrance Garden. That was our pollinator garden. And we even had a sign out there. But it was, I have to say, a disappointment. The the plans called for a metal mix, but it you know, we never knew quite what to put there. And it did attract pollinators. There were a lot of bees and butterflies there, particularly in late summer. But it wasn't, I don't think it was particularly attractive. And it didn't, I don't think it really did what it was supposed to do well. But, coincidentally, around that time around the time we opened up 2009-2010. The University had recently hired Christina Grozinger and Harland Patch from I think North Carolina State University and into the Entomology Department and, and they were forming a new faculty group called The Center for Pollinator Research. So I met with that group in late summer of 2010 to sort of ask for their help. And what can we do with this garden. And we had a great meeting. One thing led to another and Christina and Harland in particular were really interested in doing something bigger and better. As was I. So we, we talked about it, we talked some more about it, and they throughly believe that with the right kind of money, we could do something completely unique and innovative. So that's the course we embarked on. And over the process, we had three different designs...firms that we'd hired and kind of left behind. Well two until we got to the end when we again hired Emmanuel Didier. But the key was to engage. Well, as part of the consulting process, there was a subcontractor, Phyto Studios, in Claudia West in particular, was in charge of the plant material. And she worked cheek by jowl with our horticulturist Sherry Adelson and with Harlan Patch to put together a plant list that we would hope would attract as many pollinators native to this area as possible. And the ultimate goal of the garden is to attract ALL native pollinators. And there are several hundred of those species. But it took a lot of knowledge and a lot of planning to put that plant list together. There are some plants that attract a lot of pollinators, some are specialists, some pollinators visit many different species of plants and some beginner specialist so you have these overlapping communities of insects and plants. And the key was to you know, select those plants that had sort of generalist capabilities in terms of attracting pollinators, but then begin filling in the holes with plants whose community of pollinators was, you know, progressively smaller. And that's, that's what we have out there. And at the same time, you know, make it not only attractive to insects, but attractive to people. Because I mean, it's no good unless people come. And I think we did that. I think we achieved a really attractive garden and I was just stunned in the summer to see. I mean, you walk out there and some of those plant beds would have thousands of bees of all kinds of species just swarming over them. It's just fascinating to watch and you can see other people were fascinated too.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Absolutely. And the research continues with the research facility. It is amazing all the research. So I need to move forward because we see ground already broken again on what is part of the Arboretum, but is going to be another part of the cultural magnet for this now growing tourism attraction for Central Pennsylvania and beyond...The Palmer Museum of Art.

Kim Steiner 
Oh yeah, there is active research going on. Yeah.

Carolyn Donaldson  
Tell us about the the synergy in the relationship you hope that you see between those facilities.

Kim Steiner 
And, of course, the Palmer is coming out of Arts and Architecture. And Arts and Architecture, the college, has always been a big part of the arboretum project. So this was President Barron's idea originally. And I think it's a great idea. We attract over 150,000 visitors a year to the Arboretum. They've been getting quite a bit fewer than that because it's harder to get to the current Palmer Museum, so just by putting it out at the edge of campus where there's convenient parking would be an advantage. But the President and we hope Erin M. Coe, I hope that there will be a synergism between the Arboretum and the Palmer. That is visitors to one will go to the other and, and I think that will happen. I think it'll be a great combination.

Carolyn Donaldson  
That's wonderful. Your vision continues. And I know you've stepped down in your directorial role. And I understand a full-time director is going to be in place.

Kim Steiner 
Search underway.

Carolyn Donaldson  
So what do you want visitors with our last minute left to take away from a visit to the Arboretum.

Kim Steiner 
To me well, different visitors take away different things out there. People come for all kinds of reasons. Students go out there to study. They bring their parents there on parents and family weekend because they don't have any place else to take them. I think sometimes. Department heads bring faculty candidates out there for interviews. You know, the thing that that excites me the most about about visitorship to the Arboretum is the fact that we draw people in from the surrounding areas that otherwise will not visit the University. And in fact may be fearful. I mean, just dread the idea of coming to campus and have no reason to do it. But they do come to the Arboretum. And I think that's great...that in a small way were sort of a portal to the university and higher education in central Pennsylvania.

Carolyn Donaldson  
A beautiful community treasure. Dr. Kim Steiner, thanks so much for joining us today. Together, we look forward to the next stages and the growth of this remarkable University in central Pennsylvania resource. The Arboretum is free and open every day from dawn until dusk. You can find a link to The Arboretum at Penn State on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. For Take Note, I'm Carolyn Donaldson, WPSU.

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