by Barbara Sherf
After 25 years at Morris Arboretum, the “Queen of the Garden Railway,” den mother to numerous interns and advocate for dozens of volunteers, Iana Turner, has retired from her position as the Horticulture Section Leader of the Azalea Meadow at Morris Arboretum.
At a recent standing-room-only gathering of close to 200 staffers, volunteers and longtime members, several themes surfaced repeatedly in terms of Turner’s love for her job.
Turner, 67, owned a fruit and produce business in Manayunk, but after her husband died and her son went off to college, she decided to apply for a position as a mower operator and assistant gardener at Morris, never realizing she would give birth to a second child in the form of her climb to Section Chief in 1994.
Her son, Jason Turner, now 43, was among those who talked about her love of the people and the place. “After my father passed, she needed a steady position, and she wanted to be outdoors. For her to start as a mower operator and leave as a recognized and beloved leader means a lot. This is her baby, her second child, and it’s going to be hard for her to let it go,” he said prior to the formal remarks.
Indeed, just days before her departure, she spoke of the difficulties involved in leaving.
“I just got out of a two-hour transition meeting for the Garden Railway,” Turner said. “The whole thing has been really hard, but I want to stay active and involved as a volunteer and to help in whatever way I can. I’ve been involved since the beginning of the Garden Railway, and I’m particularly attached to it.”
In 1997, after a trip to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, The F. Otto Haas Executive Director Paul Meyer became enamored with its Garden Railway display and asked Turner if she’d like to have a Garden Railway display in her area. She said yes.
In 1998, the Garden Railway, designed by Paul Busse and his company, Applied Imagination, installed the display under Turner’s direction. In the first year it opened, visitor attendance and memberships soared, and the exhibit is sold out every year.
Nathaniel Schwarz, 19, first saw the exhibit when he was 4. When he was 9, he started volunteering and has been working during the past two summers in the gardens while taking a break from his college studies. “I love that she (Turner) knows everyone’s names and personally relates to everyone. She has indeed been a mentor and role model and den mother all wrapped into one.“
Turner’s other loves are serving as an instructor for tree pruning classes, overseeing the planting of the F. Otto Haas Oak Allée after an extensive storm in 1991 and the installation of more than 25 scarecrows for the Scarecrow Walk each fall.
Mt. Airy resident Dick St. Claire was Turner’s assistant for eight years. “I took the job because I like to play outdoors,” he said. “Iana was the perfect playmate. She taught me more than a few things along the way. It’s really going to be different without her, but I suspect we’ll see her around here quite a bit.”
Jan McFarlan, Director of Education, noted Turner’s desire to reach out to children. “She taught many children’s programs because she knew how pliable children are early on. She then moved into teaching pruning classes that are very popular. She is leaving a legacy of care and attention to the educational side of our mission.”
Volunteer David Kronick was grateful for Turner’s attention to the volunteers. “Iana was always the mother hen to interns and volunteers. She watched over us, fed us and watered us, just like she did her plants. She will be missed by many.”
Tony Aiello, Director of Horticulture and Curator, noted that a tree she had planted and moved closer to the swan pond will be dedicated in honor of Turner. She received the tag for the tree, along with an album with photos taken over the years (most by Meyer) of Iana and the plants and people she surrounded herself with.
Turner noted that the University of Pennsylvania’s tuition benefit program was the carrot that moved her along to get her degrees. “Through the program I was able to earn my Associate and Bachelor of Sciences degrees in Horticulture, and those credentials helped move me up the ladder,” she noted.
But Iana did not have those degrees in hand when she applied for the Section Chief position. Several speakers noted the risk Meyer took in hiring her, but he didn’t think she was much of a risk at all. “We had all worked with her for five years,” he said, “and she was just a few credits short of getting her degree. She was a known entity and she had proven herself. It was a no-brainer.”
Employee Joe Murtaugh raised his bottle of beer to her. “She has a beautiful, old-school personality. She has charisma and is just good people,” he said while sipping a beer with fellow employee Keith Snyder. “When my mother died a while back, Iana made a wreath for her grave and continues to make one every year. I have a lot of respect for her, and I never met anyone else who could remember everyone’s name. She can never be replaced.”
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf, Founder of Capture Life Stories, will speak at the Lovett Memorial Library on April 27, 7 p.m., at a meeting of the Northwest Village Network on the importance of capturing our stories. The public is welcome to attend the free program. Sherf can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215-233-8022.