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Tropical dreams: University Center’s garden manager retires after 37 years

After having the job for nearly four decades, Kelly Chadwick hopes whoever replaces her will enjoy tending the University of Montana’s tropical garden and other plants as much as she did. (Jordan Unger/Missoula Current)

After spending over 37 years as the University Center’s (UC) gardens manager and launching a number of other plant-related programs on campus, Kelly Chadwick retired earlier this month.

Often referred to as “the plant lady,” Chadwick was originally hired by the university in May of 1983. Her last day came on December 18, just in time for the weekend.

“I’m not feeling it quite yet. I think it will be back like when I was 20,” Chadwick said. “When I could just travel and be gone as long as I wanted and take my time and not rush.”

Originally from Oregon, Chadwick obtained a liberal arts degree from Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. Right after graduating she took an office job in Portland.

However, she quickly realized this was not the right route for her.

“I hated it. And so, after a year, I quit. I became a seasonal forest service employee. I was a fire lookout, and I was a firefighter for three seasons,” she said.

Chadwick had friends in Montana and soon set her eyes on moving to Missoula. When she arrived, she started applying to various jobs indiscriminately.

“I ended up being hired for two jobs on the same day. One was in education and one was at a little plant store,” Chadwick said. “I chose the plant store, and that really is what changed things. It was just a fluke.”

The plant store that Chadwick ended up working at was a family run business, Earth Jar, on Front and Higgins. While working at the Earth Jar, Chadwick began selling plants to Eugene Beckes – UC’s first gardens manager.

When retirement was looming on Beckes’ horizon, he pushed Chadwick to apply for the position.

“He just said you should apply for the job. And so, I did,” she said. “I got the job and that was it. I never thought this would be my career. You know, I think my life just kind of fell into it.”

After serendipitously stumbling into the job in her 20s, Chadwick enthusiastically jumped into the position. She set about actively taking the time to learn more about the science and environmental aspects of gardening to incorporate that into her work.

As a university employee, she capitalized on some of the benefits of the job – such as taking free courses through the university.

“When I started, there was a botany department on campus, and now it’s merged with biology. But I was able to sit in on their classes. I wasn’t looking for the credits, just the education,” she said.

Chadwick also took the initiative to help start projects such as the medical plant garden with the school of pharmacy.

“With the medicinal plant garden, Dr. Medora, who’s retired now, came to me and said, ‘It would be great to have a medicinal plant garden on campus.’ And he wasn’t asking me, he was just thinking of how and where it could be done,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick decided to take the lead. With help from Dr. Medora, she used plants Dr. Medora needed while also adding in folklore and other historically used plants. The garden is still used for tours and by students.

While enjoying plants for the beauty themselves, Chadwick was also committed to using her job to help others – a desire that led her to create a vegetable garden to help contribute to UM’s Food Pantry.

“I thought, well, food. That’s one thing I could do is grow food,” she said. “We have perennials like raspberries and strawberries. We have squash and tomatoes, all the basic vegetables. But we try to do more storage things that would last.”

Perhaps the biggest perk of the job, for Chadwick, has always been that it connected her so well with the community. Through her work, she served on the Integrated Pest Management Committee, the Arboretum Committee and the Sustainability Committee.

She also volunteers with the Native Plant Society and with the state of Montana’s Arboretum, which she will continue to do into retirement.

“It’s just opened up, I think, a world to me,” Chadwick said. “I have just met so many interesting people. I’ve met professors and had good relationships with them. It’s just a great environment to work in.”

After having the job for nearly four decades, Chadwick hopes whoever replaces her will enjoy the job as much as she did.

“I will miss the plants. I mean, I’ve raised them for 37 years basically,” Chadwick said. “And I will miss the people. But I will still be involved. I don’t feel like I’m saying completely goodbye to it.”