We are saddened to share that our founding director John Trexler passed away over the weekend. John was a force of nature whose wisdom, diligence, and expertise will continue to connect people and plants for generations to come. We will miss him dearly and are forever grateful for his devotion to Tower Hill Botanic Garden.
Appointed director of the Worcester County Horticultural Society in 1984, John’s dream — to create a nationally recognized botanic garden on a former dairy farm atop a hill in bucolic Boylston, Massachusetts — was visionary. Like other “if you build it, they will come” tales of success, Tower Hill Botanic Garden would not exist without an outsized personality as the driving force. He laid the foundation, both literally and figuratively, for a garden that would improve people’s lives ad infinitum.
It’s difficult to encapsulate John in a sentence or single essay. His 2017 book, “Tower Hill, The First 25 Years: The Selective Memories of a Benign Dictator,” provides a window into his world by recounting the challenges and joys of associated with creating a place that more than a million people have visited. Few of us have the ability to reach so many in such a positive and life affirming way.
“With wit, charm and uncommon candor John brought the garden to our hill,” said Worcester County Horticultural Society Trustee Barbara Morse. “We are all so much the better for his vision, his artistry, and his singular dedication.”
In a 2017 article by longtime Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson, the writer told John she didn’t really like plants.
“You know, Dianne, plants provide us with all the food we eat and all the air we breathe,” he replied, referencing a statement that still adorns the wall in Tower Hill’s Great Hall. “It’s the single most important organism on Earth for the survival of the human race. You don’t have to be cozy with plants, but you have to respect them.”
Classic John, a televangelist for all things plants, convinced that all people need is to spend time in a beautiful garden to become plant converts and advocates for nature. Current staff see these light bulb moments each day in visitors of all ages from all walks of life. John was right.
“It takes courage to start a new garden,” said Tower Hill CEO Grace Elton. “And humor and savvy and a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude. We’re so grateful John shared his talents with the people of Central Massachusetts, with the people of New England. He was clearly a true plantsman. Thankfully, he chose this little hill overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir to make his mark.”
When John, just 32 years old at the time, arrived at Horticultural Hall in downtown Worcester in 1984, the Worcester County Horticultural Society had just two employees, no garden plot of its own, and no chairman of its board of directors, Harvard professor Jock Herron wrote in the foreword to “Tower Hill, the First 25 Years.” Imagine the foresight and tenacity it took to see such a bright horizon and to boldly and methodically move toward that future in baby steps and giant leaps.
“John had the good sense and imagination to engage and generously credit a diverse cast of supporters — loyal staff, national experts, local philanthropists — to help him create what has become one of the most appealing horticultural institutions in the Northeast,” wrote Herron. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
We’re forever grateful to John, his partner of 38 years, Rob Zeleniak, and the people in John’s life who supported his inspirational efforts: the dedicated employees, board members, volunteers, and donors who championed a profound leader on a quest to make the world a little more beautiful through connecting to the natural world.
A Latin inscription outside the Orangerie, visible to Winter Garden visitors reads: “If there be heaven on earth, this is it, joy everlasting.” It was John’s way of reminding us to stop and smell the roses. To seize the moment. To bloom where you grow. We’re listening, John. We always will.
Visit John’s obituary here.