‘George’s legacy is always going to be in bloom around here’

Frank Scafella gets a charge whenever he looks out the window to regard those yellow flowers in his side yard.

“I still don’t know what the heck they are,” the former Morgantown mayor said, chuckling.

“But George told me to plant ‘em, so that’s what I did.”

He’s referring to George Longenecker, the WVU professor, landscape architect and outdoors proponent credited with the creation of the West Virginia Botanic Garden on Tyrone Road.

Longenecker, 85, died three weeks ago at his family’s cottage in the woods just beyond Madison, Wisc., where he was born in 1937.

As a kid, he never had to be told to play outside.

He was steeped in the stuff. He took after his dad, Bill Longenecker, in that regard.

Longenecker, the elder, was a pioneering landscape architect who taught that subject at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Should you have occasion to visit the university arboretum there, you can take a side tour at the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, so named in the patriarch’s honor.

It was only a little while before Longenecker, the younger, began following the same path as his dad.

As a fourth-grader, George became famous in his family when he researched, identified and labeled the 165 wildflowers his father had transplanted to their postage-stamp yard – thus making a relatively small, somewhat nondescript space explode with color and hard-to-pronounce Latin names.

One of George’s daughters, Karin Crawford, never fails to smile at the above account, now part of Longenecker family lore.

“He was pre-ordained,” said Crawford, who, as it turns out, was too.

Turn right – at the Wright house

She began her career as a social worker.

Then, she ran a number of nonprofit organizations.

Neither pursuit lends time for reflective moments in the middle of one’s country garden, Crawford said, ruefully.

“I got really burned out,” she said. “I had to step back.”

When she did, she found herself walking about in her dad’s professional and metaphorical neighborhood.

Crawford became a florist and runs her own shop in Scottsdale, Ariz., bringing splashes of color to the earth-toned confines of a locale known for its “zeroscape” yards of rock, sand and gravel – sans grass.

She was 4 years old when Longenecker moved his family to Morgantown in 1966, so he could become a professor in WVU’s then-new landscape architecture program.

That was after his degrees in that field in Wisconsin and Illinois, and his hitch as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Longenecker, his wife Caryol and their daughters, Karin, Sarah and Heather, took up residence in a mobile home – while he went to work on Cliffside.

That was the name he gave to the family dwelling on Snake Hill Road, which grew into both a riff and homage to the prairie home-organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Back home in Wisconsin, the Longenecker cottage was just a short hop away from Taliesen, Wright’s studio.

“He was a real devotee of Wright’s work,” Crawford said.

So much so, in fact, that Longenecker took his young family on a motorcar vacation in 1973, where they stopped at every Wright-designed residence they could find across the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

That was, of course, his daughter said, with someone offering on-the-fly seminars from behind the wheel, with every flip of the Road Atlas page.

No burst of wildflowers or calligraphy-reach of a tree branch, Crawford remembered, escaped the intellectual discourse.

“Dad never lost that sense of wonder,” she said.

A legacy by any other name

That enduring sense of wonder is quite evident in the West Virginia Botanic Garden, its current executive director Philip Smith said.

While Longenecker’s funeral service is 11 a.m. Saturday at Wesley United Methodist Church on North High Street – people are invited to come out the West Virginia Botanic Garden from 3-7 p.m. Friday, for an open house celebrating his life and times.

“It’s appropriate that we have people here for George,” Smith said. “This place is George.”

The garden, with its 82 acres that include towering oak and hemlock trees, was the site of the former Tibbs Run Reservoir, which supplied water to the city of Morgantown until 1969.

After the reservoir was drained in 1980, Longenecker took root. He got other eco-kindred spirits to the do the same.

Today, the expanse is home to nature walks, yoga sessions, chamber music concerts and seminars and workshops related to environmental concerns.

Trappings of the garden’s Tibbs Run past can still be spied along its trails.

Water from that history has pooled into low-lying areas there over the years. At Longenecker’s direction, those areas have been allowed to evolve in to natural wetlands.

Hammocks are even interspersed among the trees for those who like a little snoozing with their communing.

Garden staffers make a final pass at the end of the day to ensure no napper gets locked in, Smith said.

“You look at all those charming, neat touches and you’re seeing George Longenecker’s vision,” the director said.

Jenny Selin, another former Morgantown mayor, agrees.

She even has a Wisconsin-West Virginia connection with the Longenecker family.

Selin grew up in Madison, too.

Her parents, Howard and Nancy Mead, are outdoors enthusiasts who produced and edited a nature magazine there for nearly 40 years.

Howard and Nancy knew Bill and Sarah, Longenecker’s parents.

“When I came to Morgantown and started hearing about George Longenecker, I said, ‘Hey, I sure know that name.’”

Even if, as with her counterpart Scafella, she can’t always remember the names of the things Longenecker told her plant in her yard, too.

Like that huge bush with the maple-looking leaves and spiky trunk, she said, laughing.

“I have no idea what it’s called.”

Well, check that, she said.

Just call it, “George’s love of the land, the place and people of his adopted hometown,” she said.

It’s a hefty name for a heartful imprint, Selin said.

“You’ve got all those Morgantown yards and the Botanic Garden. George’s legacy is always going to be in bloom around here.”