Thursday, May 1, 2014

Matheke, instrumental to botanical garden, retires

After 35 years, Grant Matheke has put away his rake, hammer and shovel at the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

Matheke remembers the exact day he started working as a research technician: March 19, 1979. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, outside of New York City and earned a B.A. in biology and chemistry at Middlebury College in Vermont and a master’s in biological oceanography at UAF.
Grant Matheke at the Georgeson Botanical Garden

While serving in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1970, Matheke was stationed in Virginia, Florida, the Mediterranean and Cuba. He came to Alaska to escape the crowded East Coast and was happy to take the job at the GBG. “I knew a little bit because I had gardened as a kid,” Matheke said. His mother’s gardener raised prize-winning dahlias and Matheke would hang around him to listen to his horticulture stories.

At first, Matheke worked with controlled environments, raising tomatoes and cucumbers hydroponically. He also researched cut roses and using waste heat to keep greenhouses warm. He helped establish a greenhouse at Fort Wainwright for growing warm season crops.

His legacy is seen everywhere at the GBG, as Matheke helped design and build the garden, handling the landscape construction and experimental design for vegetables and peonies. He planned and installed an automated sprinkler system and built all but two of the garden structures. Data analysis was another big area of his job. “The statistics course I had to take came in handy,” he said.

Matheke loved the variety his job offered. “I liked being outdoors in the summer. It was kind of neat to do something here and be the first ones to do it. Throughout the years the challenge has been funding. “We built this garden as money became available,” he said. “So some things got built pretty slowly.

“The thing I felt best about was watching the garden develop and feeling like I was a part of that,” he said. “It was rewarding to do research that helped the garden and small scale farmers. It was a great job. I’d keep doing it if I wasn’t getting old. I just can’t do it justice any more.”

For Matheke, GBG wasn’t just a workplace; it holds a special magic. “I’d see people coming to the garden in the evening, a couple you could tell had had a spat and after half an hour they’d walk out holding hands. Gardens are uplifting spaces.”

He liked the unique aspect of conducting research right where visitors were walking by. “There’s a lot of science in horticulture and art too. It’s a little bit like medicine.

“It was nice to use your mind a little bit to solve problems. We’d see what questions came up and what we could learn. We’d end up with way more questions than when we started.”

Working with students was one of the best things about his career. “We had some great ones,” Matheke said. He tried to instill in them that at the end of each day they should look at what they had accomplished.

At home, Matheke grows fruits and perennials. He and his wife Libby Silberling plan to visit their place in Maine more often and leave Alaska in the winter to sail in warm locations. The couple has four daughters and three grandchildren.

Matheke will spend more time camping and canoeing in retirement.

“I hope to see the garden grow as a valuable resource for the community,” he said. He has one more project to finish at the GBG and plans to ride his bike there this summer to work as a volunteer.

His supervisor, Professor Pat Holloway, said, “Grant is one of the best ambassadors for UAF through his work at science fairs, school workshops and consultation with many, many local growers. You can find Grant’s name practically on every rock, bench, flower bed and dandelion in the entire garden.
Grant Matheke will spend more time relaxing in his retirement.

“Grant has a very good work ethic, and he leads by example in everything he does,” Holloway said. “He has trained hundreds of college and high school students and community volunteers with infinite patience and respect. Grant had the ability to handle an insane summer work schedule with the uncountable crush of summer visitors, and then picture a person juggling two coffee cups and bellowing an operatic tune while racing through the garden to attack the next project.”

No comments: