Laura Chalus: Stop and Smell the Roses

From the Summer 2019 issue of In The Garden, our quarterly newsletter.

by Laura Chalus, CEO, Tulsa Garden Center at Woodward Park

Halfway into my first term as Tulsa Rose Society President, an annual Rose Show now successfully under my belt, and having just completed the first of three surveys for new trial roses in the Rose Garden, I woke on a rare and quiet day off with a sleepy-eyed, but suddenly crystal clear, epiphany. I could scarcely control my chuckling, scrambling for the phone to call my Mom.

When I had her on the line, grinning ear to ear, I said “Did you know that after all the years and strategic decisions I’ve poured into crafting the perfect career for my lifestyle and personality, I somehow also managed to secure one of the most absolutely delightful job “duties” EVER?!! “Oh, what is that?” she asked. “My job, almost every day, is, LITerally (channeling Chris Traeger), to stop and smell the roses……..” It took her the briefest of moments to catch my pun, and then she laughed too. “How great is that?!” I said, and she couldn’t help but agree that I had found my perfect niche.

Three years ago, after the first of two lengthy interviews for the position of Tulsa Garden Center CEO, I walked out of the Mansion and into the sunlight, smiling. I couldn’t believe I was standing here on a beautiful day in this gorgeous place; a park I had visited so many times before when I needed a quiet place just to be. I looked left and saw the Rose Garden, and found my feet were already moving before my brain had even had time to register the movement. As I entered the garden and took a few steps, though, something was definitely NOT right. I stopped short. What in the world??!

The once beautiful Tulsa Rose Garden was completely devastated. As I haltingly started down the flagstone steps to the lower terraces, I actually began to feel afraid. Was this part of the job description I had just so excitedly pursued? Would I be expected to solve this catastrophe? How on earth did this happen?!! And then a more visceral sense of fear hit. What if someone was hiding on the other side of those 8-foot-tall beds of raggeldy sunflowers and morning glory vines? I couldn’t even see around the corners of the too-tall plants, and was all by myself to boot. This was just wrong on so many levels.

Of course what I didn’t know at the time was the convoluted backstory, involving a microscopic mite, years of municipal budget cuts, and a general feeling of despair which had settled like a green shroud over the roses. The sheer neglect, juxtaposed against some of the most beautiful gardens in Tulsa, hit me in the pit of my stomach. How on earth would this ever come back?

But it has, and it is, slowly coming back to life. With the help of hundreds of community volunteers, including experts in roses and rose diseases, new life is finding its way back into this historic landscape. Even the unruliest of gardens is no match for the sweat equity of so many caring individuals. On a shoe string budget, and with a tip of my hat to our educational mission, the original 1934 Rose Garden plans were revisited and found inspiring. Landscape architect, C. Burton Fox, initially designed the 4 ½ acres to be a beautiful botanical garden, diversely rich in plant material, while highlighting the grandeur of roses. Those plans seemed to be the perfect reset point, so that’s exactly where we started.

The historic Tulsa Rose Garden embodies the hard-working and generous spirit of all who have toiled within her walls. So many great Tulsans got their start here. Whether tending to the roses themselves, raising funds for garden restoration projects, or providing thoughtful oversight, how incredibly blessed I am to be part of this do-gooders’ club whose members braved weeds and thorns to create such beauty for others.

When the time comes for someone else to champion the cause, I fervently hope they will also fully embrace and cherish the responsibility they have been given, as stewards of something truly magical. Don’t forget to always take time and stop to smell the roses…