Longest-serving White House head gardener laid to rest

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Updated Nov 28, 2018
The Rose Garden of the White House covered in snow, Nov. 15, 2018, (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead) Photo: The White House/FlickrThe Rose Garden of the White House covered in snow, Nov. 15, 2018, (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Photo: The White House/Flickr

Last week, the White House’s longest-serving head gardener, Irvin Williams, passed away at the age of 92 at a hospital in Reston, Virginia.

Williams was first appointed in 1962, and his career managing the grounds of the White House spanned the presidency of John F. Kennedy through George W. Bush. He retired in 2008, and one of the projects he was best known for in his tenure was the White House’s Rose Garden.

While he had very little formal landscaping training, Williams’s skills in horticulture, his dedicated work ethic and his high standards of work quality earned him the position of superintendent of the District’s Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in the 1950s. It was during this time that Williams had the opportunity to work a few landscaping projects within the gates of the White House.

NBC Today reports that after seeing his handiwork around the White House gates, first lady Jackie Kennedy was so impressed with Williams that she hired him to take over management of the 18 acres of the presidential compound. It was at this time that Kennedy requested Williams begin work on the Rose Garden.

“Williams’ day-to-day responsibilities included advising presidents and first ladies about adding new plants and trees, and restoring the grounds after events like the annual Easter Egg Roll,” the White House Historical Association said on Facebook. “He dealt with other projects too, such as designing the Rose Garden and repairing damage after an airplane crashed on the South Lawn in 1994.”

NBC Today notes that throughout his career, Williams had the chance to work on numerous projects, but a few of the most remembered were Gerald Ford’s swimming pool, the treehouse for Jimmy Carter’s daughter and George H. W. Bush’s horseshoe pit.

“Irvin Williams saw Caroline Kennedy ride her pony through the White House gardens, Bill Clinton’s cat Socks get tangled in a willow tree and President Jimmy Carter and his daughter, Amy, build a treehouse together during his time as the White House head gardener,” the White House Historical Association said on Facebook.

The Washington Post notes that Williams knew each of the 400 trees on the grounds of the White House, and he led a team that was charged with preserving specimens and/or propagating their offspring.

“No president, maybe except for Thomas Jefferson, has had as big an impact on the garden as Mr. Williams,” Jonathan Pliska, author of A Garden for the President, told The Washington Post. “He’s on the Mount Rushmore of who’s contributed the most, and he’s unfortunately one of the least known. But that’s how he wanted it.”

After retiring in 2008, The Washington Post says Williams propagated boxwood and became a collector of antique clocks and lead crystal vases to adorn luxury automobiles.

“The White House’s residents appreciated what Williams did to keep the grounds beautifully manicured,” the White House Historical Association said on Facebook. “Mrs. Kennedy even gave him a gift before she left the White House: a dog named Pushinka, who grew attached to the gardener. Williams amassed a lifetime of memories, stories and the gratitude of several first families by the time he retired in 2008.”

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