Barry Fugatt’s Lasting Relationship with Woodward Park

From the Summer 2019 issue of In The Garden, the Tulsa Garden Center’s quarterly newsletter.

by Meredith Jones, Education and Training Manager, Tulsa Garden Center and Dylan Axsom, Communications Manager, Tulsa Garden Center

Most of us that were born in the age of technology know the cliché of dad coming home from work and plopping himself in front of the television. However, Tulsa Garden Center’s Director of Horticulture, Barry Fugatt, had a father with a different routine to unwind, and, lucky for Barry, it revolved around the family garden.

When asked when his love of horticulture began, he says he can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there, and attributed much of it to the love his father had for growing things. “The next thing I knew I was stealing potatoes and onions out of mom’s kitchen, and no one had to tell me that when you put them in the ground you get a new onion!”

The youngest of seven, he was also the only one to catch the “horticulture gene” as he put it, and the enthusiasm that was birthed from both his infectious curiosity and his father’s shared interest catapulted him into the world of higher learning with only one problem. He was too interested.

When asked how his interest in growing things shaped his educational path, he explained, “my dilemma was that I loved everything about it.” Barry graduated from McNeese State University with a Bachelor of Science in Ornamental Horticulture, and from The University of

Arkansas with a Master of Science in Environmental Horticulture & Landscape Design, minoring in plant Pathology. The road to choosing those majors wasn’t direct, and he could have specialized in any number of areas, such as botany or plant pathology.

Barry chose horticulture, he said, “because I felt like I could do all of those things.” Barry isn’t just a man of his field, though. It’s his intrinsic passion and interest in plants that drives him. “No one ever had to teach me to be amazed at the size of a giant cypress tree in south Louisiana,” he said. It’s that never-ending curiosity that seems to shape every step he has taken.

After finishing his masters, unsurprisingly, Barry was offered jobs all over the country, but the deciding factor wasn’t salary or prestige, but good old fashioned love. “I was desperately in love with a young lady in Fayetteville, and Tulsa was by far the closest option.” Barry wound up taking a job with Oklahoma State University as their Extension Specialist to Tulsa.

While that motivational love in Fayetteville didn’t last, his relationship with Tulsa began. This step in his journey is also where his relationship to Woodward Park and the Tulsa Garden Center began. Barry’s predecessor split his time between an office at OSU and one reserved for him at the Tulsa Garden Center, and Barry began his time at OSU following that model.

If you flip though The Tulsa Garden Center’s 1971 Annual, you’ll come across a Landscape Horticulture Class being taught at the Mansion by Barry himself. You can also read one of Barry’s many articles, “Pruning – Misunderstood,” in the 1987 Annual. The length of time he has been involved with Woodward Park is valuable, but it’s not what he is most known for.

Barry retired from Oklahoma State University in 2003, and was approached almost immediately by Bonnie Hammond, former director of the Tulsa Garden Center. She asked him his plans for retirement, and proposed a light schedule as Director of Horticulture for the Tulsa Garden Center.

He finished work at OSU on a Friday, and started at The Tulsa Garden Center the following Monday. His proposed schedule would be modest – two days a week – and his duties would involve lectures and occasional classes. So how did he end up in his current office in the Barn of The Linnaeus Teaching Garden? Again, the answer harkens back to love.

During his years at OSU, he was vital in beginning the famed Master Gardener Program in Tulsa, and that experience solidified his self-admitted love for working with volunteers and “being around the volunteer spirit,” he said. It also involved learning some lessons.

He was able to take those lessons, both good and bad, and develop “a volunteer philosophy.” However, from his desk at the Tulsa Garden Center, he missed being able to put that philosophy into practice. He had also been paying attention to a particular patch of land in Woodward Park that wasn’t being used, as well as the Barn (one of the original structures built by the Travis family), which was full of old supplies and in neglect.

“The idea occurred to me that if we could get some volunteers together, we might be able to create a program. I believed that all the components were here, including this 100-year-old building that could be turned into a quaint visitor’s center,” said Barry.

With already going through the hands on experience of creating a volunteer program from scratch, amassing an entire career’s worth of horticultural education, creating connections to national wholesale nurseries, and having also demonstrated a proven capacity to get others involved financially and philosophically, Barry decided on trying to bring a lofty dream to life.

Reaching out to Joe Howell, an esteemed and talented landscape architect in the Tulsa area, who also happened to be one of Barry’s oldest friends, Barry began the journey of turning the dream of the Linnaeus Teaching Garden into a reality.

The City of Tulsa approved the project and over the course of seven months, over $200,000 were raised, as well as countless in-kind donations. A construction manager was hired early on, and with a keen eye the progress of their sub-contractors, they were miraculously able to complete the building phase in just under a year. With the help of Barry’s nursery contacts, all of the plants for the garden were donated, and with the help of the first two Linnaeus volunteer classes, planting was completed in under two months. Today, the volunteer program has graduated over 640 students, and has 262 active volunteers.

Linnaeus volunteers opened their doors to the public in 2006, which means that less than three years passed between Barry’s original concept and the ribbon cutting. The speed with which a project like Linnaeus was dreamt, approved, and completed is precisely why Barry often refers to it as, “the miracle in Woodward Park.”

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When you try to get to the root of Barry’s love of horticulture, his answers inevitably go back to people. “People trump plants every time,” is a sentence he says regularly. His key purpose at Linnaeus isn’t in the science of it all, but rather “sowing seeds into the hearts and lives of people.”

“The concept of the garden is that it’s a tool to mobilize, to get kids interested in butterflies, or how to save water [with xeriscape gardens],” said Barry. “The plants are the stage, the set, but not the play.”

When asked where he would spend his time in Linnaeus if he could volunteer for a day? “Working with children in the veggie garden,” he replied, which is an image that brings back to mind Barry as a young boy, stealing his mother’s potatoes. “You get to enjoy not only the beauty of the plant but you ultimately get to eat it, so it’s touching most of the senses: Taste, smell, sight, feel.”

Even though Barry retired after a magnificent career, it’s easy to look at all of his previous steps as pieces of the final puzzle that is the Linnaeus Teaching Garden. “You could look back and see the trail leading to this - the next thing I needed to do,” he said. But his magnum opus wouldn’t be complete without the people that make it up. “We are all on a journey of exploration,” he said, “and we do things so much better in community.” The entirety of Woodward Park will forever be lucky to have Barry as a part of it.

Click here to see the fall 2019 issue of In The Garden

Dylan AxsomComment