Amazing Seniors: Dr. Emil Andersen
Since retiring 18 years ago, 85-year-old horticulturist Dr. Emil Andersen has barely broken stride. Pioneer, professor, researcher, lecturer, mentor, traveller, volunteer and gardener, Andersen last March won the Ontario Retirement Communities Association (ORCA) resident-of-the-year award. He was recognized not only for his Millennium Forest Project and his involvement with The Orchards Retirement Residence, (one of many Comfort Life retirement homes) in Vineland, Ontario, but for lifetime achievements as well.
His capacity for getting things done no doubt springs from the sturdy Danish stock that shaped him -- a restless father who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and a mother whom he describes as heroic.
Andersen's mother weathered dislocation, a tornado that picked up their house and hurled it into the barn, widowhood, and a half year with only a granary as shelter for herself and her five children, not to mention the merciless winds of the Dirty Thirties.
Andersen remembers clearly his mother's big garden in a hamlet near Medicine Hat, Alberta. She planted trees and flowers in defiance of the relentless wind and he helped out as a small boy.
"The garden was hot and uncomfortable, but I did the work without hesitation," Andersen recalls. "When I was 10, I planted a row of trees around the farm and they're still there."
This early work in his mother's garden put Andersen on the path to becoming a distinguished horticulturist. His work eventually caught the attention of the Ontario Horticultural Research Institute in Vineland, where he was offered the position of chief research scientist in charge of breeding for a wide range of vegetables and fruit trees.
Andersen and his wife, Anne, moved to The Orchards early last year, when memory problems began to curb Anne's activities. By then, Andersen was already involved in the Millennium Forest Project, which transformed empty land in Vineland owned by the University of Guelph into a memorial forest.
It was Andersen's idea to commemorate the millennium by planting trees, as they are "long lived and appealing to everyone." His idea was to plant different species, each one sponsored - at a cost of $200 - by individuals who would have their names on permanent steel plaques at the bases of the trees.
And Andersen knew the perfect site - a small piece of University of Guelph land where his former house, now demolished, once stood. The university contributed an adjacent piece of land, doubling the size of the site.
Thirty-four loads of soil were trucked in and volunteers went to work, clearing, digging holes, planting trees and grass, and laying pathways. Andersen did the planning and sourcing and determined the criteria for the trees - "good trees; trees that would survive and that would look attractive over time."
It would be a forest, not a park, Andersen explains, where trees would develop naturally, but with a pathway winding through it, allowing visitors to appreciate every single tree.
People, from as far away as England, bought trees as memorials for spouses or parents who had worked for the Horticultural Research Institute. Demand soon surpassed the more than 130 trees available.
Now the forest is considered a model for similar projects.
Andersen balked at any kind of recognition. But at the grand opening, the Town of Lincoln surprised him with a plaque in his honor. The chosen tree? The bald cypress, the tree Andersen considers the most beautiful in the whole forest.