Groundsman calls aboretum home sweet home
Doug Monroe began living on the Morton Arboretum property when he was 13
Doug Monroe remembers a girl from the inner city getting off the bus at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle one day and picking up a stick.
"Is this part of a tree?" she asked.
Told that it was, she hugged it to her chest. "It's so wonderful," she said.
Monroe, the arboretum's longest serving employee, couldn't agree more. The construction groundsman started working part-time at the arboretum when he was 14 and went full-time 45 years ago.
"It's been a magical trip ever since," he said. "I consider this an incredible resource."
Monroe moved onto the arboretum grounds at age 13 with his parents, who were custodians there. He and his wife, Becky, still live in a house on the arboretum's 1,700 acres, where they raised four children.
"I was never motivated to go somewhere else. This was my home," he said. "I love it very much."
Kris Bachtell, the arboretum's vice president of collections and facilities who oversees the grounds department where Monroe works, said Monroe is a dedicated employee who has never lost enthusiasm for his job.
"He's very knowledgeable," Bachtell said. "He's very attuned to the natural environment."
Because Monroe lives on the arboretum grounds, he's often called on to do something after hours, Bachtell said.
"He never complains and he just does it," Bachtell said. "He's rather quiet and behind the scenes."
Monroe started working full-time as custodian with his father, but moved to grounds when he had the chance. For 28 years, he worked security, opening the gates and patrolling the property at night. He figures back then, he was lucky to get five hours of sleep at a time.
"I didn't sleep much ever," he said. "There was just too much to do."
But Monroe was never bored by the work.
"It changes every day," he said. "Something's going all the time."
Monroe plows snow in the winter and works on the construction of roads, paths, berms, gardens and landscape features in warm weather months.
When he started, Clarence Godshalk was the arboretum director. Originally hired by arboretum founder Joy Morton, Godshalk was also a pilot who had plenty of stories to tell.
"He was a lot of fun. He used to talk about flying," Monroe said.
Godshalk, who retired in 1966, was followed by Marion Trufant Hall, who helped build the arboretum into a world-class research facility. Gerard T. Donnelly, the current director, who started in 1990, has overseen an effort to make the arboretum more visitor-friendly. That has included the opening of a new Visitor Center in 2004 and a Children's Garden in 2005.
Monroe is especially fond of the Children's Garden, and said he had a small role in its construction.
"That is one of the greatest things that ever happened to this place," he said.
Monroe is proud of the research done at the arboretum, such as the effort to develop a tree resistant to emerald ash borer, although he doesn't claim to understand all of it.
"I just like being on the shirttails," he said.
A keen observer of wildlife himself, Monroe recalled raising a baby chipmunk whose nest and family he had inadvertently destroyed. He named her Emily.
"We were best friends," he said. "She loved baloney."
The arboretum grounds have seen some tragedies too. Monroe said Godshalk used to tell the tale of a murder committed there and a suicide occurred several years ago. But the arboretum itself has continued to thrive, he said.
"The arboretum is a living organism. It has to grow and change, otherwise it would die," he said. "It's still growing and going."
Monroe, 64, has tinkered with plans for a dream house for many years, but he has no plans to leave his arboretum home.
"I'll go as long as I'm able," he said. "I'll stay as long as they let me."
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