November 1, 2018

Hanging Up Her Gardening Gloves

Robbye says goodbye to the plants she has cared for throughout her 40 years as greenhouse horticulturist.

Robbye says goodbye to the plants she has cared for throughout her 40 years as greenhouse horticulturist.

Robbye Johnson, UWS Greenhouse Manager, retires after 42 years of employment at UWS.

Walking into the UW-Superior greenhouse is like being transported into a tropical rainforest. Exotic tropical plants hang from the ceiling, forming a canopy of lush vegetation. Fragrances of damp earth and freshly-watered orchids and tropical pitcher plants greet you as you step through the door. And, on certain days (if you’re lucky), as you look through the jungle-like leaves and vines, you will spot the crown jewel of the greenhouse. No, it isn’t a rare orchid or waterlily – it’s Robbye Johnson.

Robbye has worked at UWS for over 40 years and has been the greenhouse horticulturist for 42 years. She is responsible for creating the miniature rainforest that thrives within its glass walls, fascinating visitors and providing a rich learning environment for students. Now, she has decided it’s time to retire.

“It’s just time for a change,” she matter-of-factly shrugged.

It only takes a moment upon meeting Robbye to know she is a treasure trove of knowledge, experiences and stories. Her beautiful long white hair, softly lined face, and gentle hands fit perfectly in the tropical refuge she has created as if she’s always been there – and she has…almost.

Robbye Johnson in the Greenhouse

Robbye first joined the UWS community as a student in 1967. The Vietnam War was still waging then, Discos were popping up in cities around the world and the Beatles ruled the music charts with their “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” album. She majored in art with a math minor and planned to teach high school. However, she quickly realized the school setting wasn’t for her, so she returned to UWS to get her master’s degree in art. But, when her son was born, he became her top priority and she decided to stop out just eight credits short of her degree.

“I taught metal arts for years as an ad hoc instructor in the art department,” she said. “I loved it because I could create my art while teaching students.”

When she was 26 years old, she was in an “Essentials of Plant Drawing” course when the instructor said UWS was looking for a part-time greenhouse manager and wondered if anyone would be interested.

“I instantly wanted that job,” said Robbye. “I grew up in the woods on the shore of Lake Superior near Bayfield and my father was a naturalist. Through his influence, I developed an affinity for plants, birds and all living things. I certainly didn’t do this job for the money,” Robbye said with a laugh. “I did it because I love it. I worked as a limited-term employee for 42 years! I think that’s a state record.”

“Robbye was an excellent greenhouse manager. She had a great eye for design, especially placing plants in locations where they could thrive and really pop visually,” said Prof. Nick Danz, Chair of the Natural Sciences Department.  “It’s also true that after a trip through the greenhouse, people always walked away knowing something not related to the greenhouse at all – Robbye is a first-rate naturalist and is happy to share her observations and commentary on what she’s seen recently in the woods or on the beach or in the air.”

Robbye said she will dearly miss her time in the greenhouse and admitted it’s hard to see things changing already in her glass-enclosed ‘home-away-from-home,’ but she says the greenhouse is in good hands with Reed Schwarting a scientist with Lake Superior Research Institute (LSRI) who is adding the part-time role to his responsibilities.

What are her plans in retirement?

“Oh my, I’ve got so many hobbies, I’ll never get bored,” she said. “I think I’ll start by cleaning out my stockpile of art and hobby supplies and then I’m going to do what an artist has to do. I’ll keep creating art.”

“My favorite part has been the relationships I’ve formed and all the conversations I’ve had with students,” she said. “I’ve been ‘mom’ to many students when they needed someone to talk to. I’ve even been ‘mediator’ to couples whose relationships were faltering. I guess my job has been more than caring for plants, it’s been caring for people, too.”

Robbye says goodbye to the plants she has cared for throughout her 40 years as greenhouse horticulturist.

Robbye says goodbye to the plants she has cared for throughout her 40 years as greenhouse horticulturist.





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