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story.lead_photo.caption Frank Russenberger of Russellville is the 2017 Pope County Master Gardener of the Year. He volunteered more than 200 hours of service last year to Master Gardener projects. He raises a variety of plants in his own yard, including rhododendron like the one shown in this photograph. - Photo by William Harvey

Frank Russenberger learned about gardening when he was a just a young boy.

“I remember helping my dad with the garden,” he said. “It was a chore then … just something I had to do to help out, but that love of gardening stayed with me.”

Russenberger, 69, is the 2017 Pope County Master Gardener of the Year.

“I am very appreciative of the honor,” Russenberger said.

Russenberger’s name has been submitted to the Arkansas Master Gardener Program for consideration as the State Master Gardener of the Year. Awards will be announced at the 2018 Master Gardener Conference on May 31 through June 2 in Fort Smith.

“Frank is a major part of the backbone of the Pope County Master Gardener program,” said Meg Fox, past president. “As a leader or a worker bee, Frank is a treasured member of Pope County Master Gardeners.”

Russenberger began working with the local Master Gardener program in 2003 when members asked him for his expertise in building a pond they envisioned at the newly built Pope County Senior Activity Center.

“That pond is still there and functioning. Shortly after that, I joined Master Gardeners. My wife, Linda, and I both signed up for classes in 2004,” Russenberger said.

“The Master Gardener program has really grown in Pope County,” he said. “I really enjoy it. You get to work with good people. We have made some good friends through Master Gardeners. I also enjoy the continuing-education opportunities that are offered, and I enjoy going to the conferences and seminars. They have a lot of good speakers who are experts in their fields.”

Russenberger served as president of the Pope County Master Gardeners for three years and has been involved in several major projects over the years.

“The biggest project was the pond at the senior center,” he said. “I worked a lot of hours landscaping and maintaining the flower beds.

“Linda and I both worked on the flower beds at the First United Methodist Church, where we are members. Although that is not a Master Gardener project, we can count it as community service.”

Russenberger and other Master Gardeners also worked on a project at Lake Dardanelle State Park, establishing native-plant beds near the visitor center.

“This is a very good educational tool. The park interpreters talk about these native plants during programs for school groups, especially,” Russenberger said.

“On the other side of the parking lot at the visitor center, we established a butterfly, or pollinator, garden. That’s used for educational purposes, too,” he said.

“One project that I am really proud of is the Garden of Hope. We partnered with the Pope County Juvenile Court to develop a gardening program for youthful offenders. Many kids don’t really know where food comes from, so we show them how to grow

food,” Russenberger said.

“We’ve seen kids come into this program from very challenging circumstances at home. … They come in with a chip on their shoulder. In two or three weeks’ time, we often see changes in them. … Some really become interested in gardening. They see the results of their efforts … the produce they have grown. They get to take the produce home with them if they want it; otherwise, we donate it to a food pantry,” he said.

“This is really a satisfying program,” Russenberger said.

“I guess I have volunteered more than 200 hours a year to Master Gardener projects for the past four or five years,” he said, noting that once a person becomes a Master Gardener, he or she is required to donate just 20 hours a year to remain an active member.

Fox said most Master Gardener programs consider that volunteering 200 hours a year is “outstanding.”

“Frank was chosen as Pope County Master Gardener of the Year because he’s such a well-rounded Master Gardener,” Fox said. “He attained Advanced Level 1 Master Gardener status by taking advanced training classes.”

Fox said that in addition to Russenberger’s work on gardening projects, he is also a “great ambassador, telling the Pope County Master Gardener story to civic groups and garden clubs.

“We have been rewarded with cash contributions for our projects and who knows how much goodwill.”

Russenberger said the Pope County Master Gardeners are involved in two big activities each year — the Pope County Fair and the Pope County Master Gardeners Plant Sale.

“We register plant and vegetable exhibits before the Pope County Fair begins; then we provide staff members in the horticulture building during the fair to answer questions and maintain the exhibits,” he said.

“We sponsor the plant sale each year on the first Saturday in May,” he said. “This year’s plant sale will be May 5 at the Pope County Fairgrounds. We are already growing plants for the sale, and I have already built a potting table and a wheelbarrow bench that we will sell during the plant sale.”

Russenberger was born and raised in Little Rock, a son of the late Charles and Georgia Russenberger. He has an older sister, Jerry, who lives in Little Rock with her husband, Tommy Lewis.

“That makes her Jerry Lewis,”

Russenberger said, smiling. “Or they could be Tom and Jerry. … We’ve had a lot of fun with those names over the years.

“They live on the old home place in Little Rock, which is at the corner of Russenberger and Dreher roads,” he said. “My wife Linda is a Dreher. … We laugh at that, too, and say we should live in that house.”

The Russenbergers have been married 47 years. They met in junior high school.

“She’s 2 1/2 years behind me,” he said, smiling. “We actually rode the same school bus in elementary school. I tell people she was just a snotty-nosed little kid, so why would I have noticed her then?”

The Russenbergers have three adult children.

Their oldest daughter, Susan, and her husband, Jerry Naylor, live in Jonesboro with their three sons, Bowen, 14, Heston, 8, and Flint, 6.

The Russenbergers’ youngest daughter, Lara, and her husband, Chuck Knebel, live in House Springs, Missouri, with their daughters, Shelby, 6, and Rose, 3.

The couple’s son, Paul Russenberger, and his wife, Shari, live in Bartlett, Tennessee, with their son, Wyatt, 8.

Frank Russenberger lived in Little Rock until he went to college.

“I graduated from Fuller High School in 1967,” he said, adding that the school is no longer in existence.

“I attended Arkansas Tech for two years, then transferred to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I wanted to be a civil engineer, but Tech didn’t offer a full engineering degree at that time, so I took pre-engineering classes,” Russenberger said.

“I graduated from Fayetteville in December 1971 with a degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on structural design and stayed another year and a half and got my master’s degree in 1973 in civil engineering with an emphasis on soils and foundations,” he said.

“I didn’t like the jobs that were offered with the degree that emphasized structural design. Those jobs were mostly in an office, sitting at a drafting table. I wanted a job that would let me be outside, so I changed emphasis and got the graduate degree that would offer me jobs working with soils and foundations,” he said.

“I went to work as a foundation consultant in Jackson, Mississippi. I analyzed soil samples and wrote reports for companies wanting to build in the area. The Jackson area’s soil has a lot of expansive clay, so analyzing the soil was very important as they designed buildings. It was a good place to be,” Russenberger said.

“I worked there until 1974, when the building boon slowed down,” he said. “I went to work for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department and retired in 2008.

“At the same time I graduated from college in 1971, I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve through the U of A Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. I took three months to attend engineering officers basic training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I served in the Reserve for eight years.”

Russenberger worked for the highway department for 34 years and moved regularly with his job.

“I started in Little Rock, moved to Osceola for one year, to Paragould for eight or nine years, back to Little Rock and then to Russellville,” he said. “If you wanted to be promoted, you moved when they asked you to move.

“It was a good place to work. I retired as a district engineer for District 8. I was over eight counties and had about 300 employees on the maintenance side and about 60 on the construction side.”

Russenberger said that when he and Linda lived in Jackson, they had a “little vegetable garden.”

“That soil was so rich that the okra grew 12 feet high,” he said, laughing.

“Then when we moved to Little Rock, we did not garden, but when we moved to Osceola, then Paragould, we got back into gardening. When we lived in Paragould, we had about a half-acre vegetable garden. We even had fruit trees and grapevines,” he said. “

“When we moved back to Little Rock, we had to give up gardening again,” he said. “We simply did not have a suitable place to garden. We lived there 12 years, sold our house and moved to Russellville and were looking for a way to get back into gardening.

“When we bought this place, there was not a flower bed on it, but we had room to build them. We designed and developed the yard ourselves. We have flower beds, a coy pond, fruit trees and more.”

Fox said Russenberger always provides a variety of plants from his yard for the plant sale.

“Frank works with the greenhouse project at Russellville High School to grow plants from seed or cuttings for our plant sale,” Fox said. “We can always count on Frank providing 100-plus plants from his own garden for the plant sale, and he works to set up the sale, during the sale and helps tear down the sale.”

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