On a ministry of nature at a popular attraction

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published November 25, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 23, 2012 at 9:07 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

After 20 years as a Baptist minister, Bob Bledsoe is overseeing a ministry of nature as executive director at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs. The 235-acre woodlands is one of Arkansas’ most popular attractions.

— Before joining the management team at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs in 2002, Bob Bledsoe spent 20 years as a Baptist minister. He said overseeing the University of Arkansas’ botanical gardens is not that different from serving a church.

“It just didn’t seem that much of a leap,” he said. “I’d seen my minister father ask for money every week, and this place needs the same kind of support. The gardens are like a sanctuary — a place that restores the soul.”

Bledsoe, now the executive director of one of Arkansas’ most popular attractions, calls the 235-acre woodlands “nature as an expression of art” that appeals to a basic human instinct.

“When God made man and woman, he put them in a garden,” Bledsoe said. “It is a place for repose and reflection where people can reconnect to what’s important.”

While some of that natural beauty is hidden by winter, Bledsoe said the staff at the gardens has geared up for what has become the busiest time of year.

“We will see 60,000 people come through our welcome center in 43 days,” Bledsoe said. “The staff all work together to conduct a symphony of

parking and admission.”

The visitors will come to see the garden’s Holiday Lights display, when 17 acres are illuminated with more than 2 million lights along the trails and into the woods. The lights were turned on Nov. 17 and will burn brightly through Dec. 31.

The idea of this holiday event, which thrills children of all ages, began as a simple business decision, the executive director said.

“The gardens are not exactly flourishing in the winter, and we were trying to generate some revenue at the end of the year,” Bledsoe said. “We didn’t realize that it would catch such a spark with people.”

He said his main job with the event is to make sure the lights and decorations grow bigger and more spectacular each year, while keeping the admission price family-friendly.

With several new attractions — including a 50-foot-tall musical and animated holiday tree in the Rose Garden, surrounded by more decorated trees, along with Santa, reindeer and elves — Bledsoe said he expects this year to be the best-attended lights program ever.

The son of a Baptist minister, Bledsoe said he was raised all around Arkansas. Born in Mount Ida while his father was pastoring a church there, Bledsoe graduated from high school in Stuttgart.

Following his father into the ministry seemed only natural, he said.

“I always assumed I would have a service-type job or mission,” Bledsoe said.

Service to people and to an important mission was, in a way, the family business. Bledsoe attended Ouachita Baptist University as a divinity student and went on to earn a doctorate.

He first came to Garvan Woodland Gardens as the development director before the gardens opened.

The land that is now Garvan Woodland Gardens was purchased by Verna Cook Garvan in the 1920s after it had been clear-cut for timber around 1915. The property became a peninsula after Lake Hamilton was created in the 1930s.

In 1956 Garvan, a self-taught gardener, began to develop the property as a garden, laying out each path and personally choosing and locating each new plant. Over the years, she planted thousands of flowers, rare shrubs and trees, including more than 160 types of azaleas.

“It is still woodlands, as the name says, but we take what nature gives us and enrich it with native and exotic plants,” Bledsoe said. “We just picked up where she left off.”

When Garvan died in 1993, she left the property to the University of Arkansas Foundation and the Department of Landscape Architecture. The land has been held in trust by the university since 1995.

“We have added the Anthony Chapel and other buildings, along with bridges, lawns and other facilities,” Bledsoe said.

When the gardens became a public attraction, he said, there was nothing grand about the opening.

“There was no manual about how to do this,” Bledsoe said. “We got some sponsors, put up a banner and invited people to walk the trails.”

Today, the gardens attract people from all over Arkansas and other states and are a must-see for international visitors who come to The Natural State. He said that success comes from the quality of the gardens and from the image projected for them.

“We try to do everything first class, from the signs and displays to the quality of the experience,” Bledsoe said. “I am very proud of what the staff has done in Hot Springs.”

As director of development and, today, as executive director, a major part of Bledsoe’s job is raising funds to support and continue to enhance the gardens. He said that task has brought him more than just money.

“I am most proud of the friendships I have made here,” he said. “Some have been people of means, and some are not. It is the people who come out and really enjoy the gardens who become my friends.”

He said different places in the gardens are associated with those friendships, such as the waterfall and koi pond — the favorite place for a young girl.

“Four or five years ago, we got a donation from someone in southwest Arkansas,” Bledsoe said. “This woman had taken her granddaughter to the gardens. The 12-year-old had terminal cancer, and she did not have many months ahead of her.

“They stopped and looked at the koi pond, and the girl looked up at her grandmother and said, ‘I wish I could stay here forever.’ The grandmother wanted to give something to us for that memory. It was a deeply heartfelt experience, and the story will stay with me forever.”

Even after more than 10 years of being in the gardens almost every day, Bledsoe said, the sight is still unique each time he sees it.

“It is my job to make sure the main thing remains the main thing,” he said. “The garden is the main thing, no matter what else is happening. The garden is jealous. She likes the spotlight, and I like for her to have it. She always deserves it.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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