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Ladies in tennis shoes

Posted on Thursday, April 5th, 2012.

Mary Mitchell (l) and Betsy Saunders (r) took action to remember entrepreneur Lewis Ginter

The phrase “last will and testament” evoke a lot of different feelings. Beyond the finality of death, there’s the desire to carry out those last wishes. When Mrs. Betsy Saunders and Mrs. Mary Mitchell learned about philanthropist Grace Arents’ will and that her intention to have gardens planted in memory of her uncle, entrepreneur Lewis Ginter, had yet to be carried out, the women were spurred to action. We met Betsy and Mary onsite of an Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal awardee, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, when they participated in StoryCorps.

LGBG sits on an historic property of over 50 acres of beautiful gardens, but the organization brings more than beautiful nature to it’s community: LGBG is a place to volunteer, somewhere to listen to music with the family, and even a good afternoon picnic spot. Its public programming educates the community on gardening and horticulture, allowing youth to realize that, yes, they eat plants.

That’s LGBG today, but back in 1981, 13 years after the city of Richmond took possession of the property, the land looked quite different.

In telling the story of LGBG, Mary and Betsy also recalled learning about estate law, how they searched for a lawyer, and the cocktail parties thrown to recruit others for the cause: plant the seeds for a local botanical garden.

Soon enough, Betsy, Mary, and other locals, including botanists and horticulturists, incorporated to uphold Miss Arents’ last will and testament. There was a lawsuit, and consequently a settlement. It took three years, but in 1984, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden became a reality.

According to Betsy, in their quest for the garden, the one thing they tried to avoid being was “just these two ladies in tennis shoes,” because they wanted to make sure that their cause was taken seriously. Looking at the vast and beautiful gardens today and the innovative ways it has become involved with the Richmond community, I’d say beware of ladies in tennis shoes – they mean business.

Richmond's Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden today

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awards The National Medal to five libraries and five museums for extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental, and social contributions to their communities. This award is the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries, and StoryCorps is proud to record the stories of these distinguished institutions. Click here for a full list of this year’s winners.

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