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Illinois hunting and fishing

Jim Matheis is retiring from his job as executive director of Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center next May. Photo by Chris Young.

Matheis to retire as Lincoln Memorial Garden director in May

January 06, 2013 at 06:31 PM

The State Journal-Register

Spring is the Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center’s signature time when the redbuds, dogwoods and hawthorns lining the trails flower in a spectacular display, pronouncing winter’s end and a beginning to the new growing season.

Jim Matheis, who has spent more than 20 years as executive director of the Garden, will take advantage of that time of transition to step down from his post in May.

“It’s time,” he said. “I just turned 59, and I’m still fairly healthy. I figured I might as well enjoy it. Plus, springtime is a good time.”

Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center, 2301 East Lake Shore Drive, was established 75 years ago on the shores of then-newly created Lake Springfield.

Harriet Knudson convinced the city of Springfield to set aside land for a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln. Then she engaged Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen, then winding down an illustrious career, to design the Garden.

Under Matheis’ leadership, the Garden has grown, adding additional acreage to buffer the site from development, and protecting the surrounding watershed.

A successful endowment campaign raised almost $900,000, providing a measure of security for the future.

Matheis has always liked watching things grow.

He planted a small prairie during an internship at the Garden while he was a student in environmental studies at what was then called Sangamon State University (now called the University of Illinois Springfield).

“I tilled up a patch near Council Ring 3 and planted a bunch of prairie plants there,” he said. “I really liked the idea of planting things and watching them progress from year to year.”

After graduation, he was hired as a groundskeeper/naturalist. He led scouts on hikes and cared for the grounds. After about 10 years, he became executive director.

‘We had to make sure we preserved the integrity’

But being executive director involves a lot more than planting prairies and sharing nature with scout groups.

Matheis learned about fundraising. He taught himself more about Jens Jensen (famous for his work in Chicago using the native landscape and plants in parks) and the Garden’s history. And Matheis started working with others to protect the Garden from encroachment.

Landscape architect Kent Massie was on the board of directors when Matheis started.

“We were sitting here in my office the other day, reminiscing,” Massie said. “I think he started out there right after Sue and I moved to town and I was on the board when he started. We go back a long, long way.

We worked on (the Garden’s master plan) in the 90s and updated it in the early 2000s. Jim has been involved in it all along.”

During that time, the Garden was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places.

“We had to make sure we preserved the integrity of the historic character of the garden,” Massie said.

At one point, the place where the Garden’s Ostermeier Prairie Center is today was slated to become a subdivision.

That is when the Garden board and foundation became concerned about effect of houses backing up to the border of the garden, Massie said.

“The city was saying, ‘So, what is your plan?’” he said. Eventually, the Garden bought the property and another adjacent property across from the main entrance, and assumed other city lake leases in the watershed of the Garden.

“The master plan (helped) the City Council see how we wanted to protect the garden for encroachment,” Massie said. “We used that to double in size and acquire the land. The whole time, Jim was there to help raise money to buy the land, and ultimately secure the Garden’s place in the city of Springfield.

Barbara Rogers, who is winding down her term as president of the Garden’s board, said adding the buffers to protect the original property is one of Matheis’ most important accomplishments.

“I think of the garden traditionally as the Jensen design and think of how much that has grown in his time because of his interest in protecting the garden,” she said.

An inspiration

Matheis said that when he graduated from college, he had a lot to learn about Jensen.

“When I started here in 1980, it was ‘Jens Jensen who?’” he said. “Kent Massie had a lot of knowledge of Jensen, and in the early 80s, Bob Grese did a master’s thesis on Jensen.

“Between the two of them, I started learning about Jensen and gradually learned more.”

Grese is now a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan.

Older volunteers also helped serve as mentors, showing Matheis where things were planted and why.

“I think a lot of (first-time visitors) think it will be a more traditional garden with formal beds of flowers,” Rogers said. “Jim is always there to shed light on the whole story of when the Garden was formed in the 30s and how Mrs. Knudson was there to secure the services of the foremost landscape architect of his time.”

“(Interpreting Jensen’s intent) has been a challenge,” Massie said. “There were not very specific plans, rather a series of plans, and we used all of those to do our interpretation.”

Jensen’s writings and letters to Knudson also helped shed light on his vision for the Garden.

Massie said that in the 1970s, the Garden was more of a wilderness, and some council rings were disappearing. Trees and brush were blocking views of Lake Springfield.

“The staff has really educated themselves,” Massie said. “Now we have a much, much better garden closer to what Jensen intended it to be. There has been a lot of work done under the radar. Lots of credit goes to the boards and staff of the Garden.”

Looking ahead

And there’s more work to do.

Invasive species of plants like bush honeysuckle, Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard, multiflora rose and others require constant vigilance.

“Once you try to control one non-native, the next one moves in,” Matheis said.

And the additional properties bring with them additional maintenance and expense.

Still, Matheis said he leaves the Garden in capable hands.

“The staff here are all multi-talented and can do many different things,” he said. “They can all give programs. They can all teach a group of children one minute and turn around and run a chain saw the next.

“(In small organizations) people have to be able to wear a lot of different hats,” Matheis said. “That is what you will find with our staff.”

After retirement, Matheis said he hopes to have time to make some improvements at home.

“I’ve got projects I’ve put off for a long time,” he said. “I’d like to have a bigger garden, and I might get serious about fishing.”

He also plans to see his grandchildren more often and visit friends living around the country.

“But I will miss the people here,” he said. “The volunteers over the years, I’ve seen a lot of them come and go, a lot have passed away and new ones have come in.

“I’ve seen their kids grow up,” he said. “I had some great volunteers and great board members that really worked hard and we got a lot of stuff accomplished.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528. Follow him at


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