It's been a dozen years since Richard Wilson, who gave the land and founded Tohono Chul Park with his late wife Jean, has been back to the Paseo del Norte park celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2010.
"I am astounded by what has been accomplished," Wilson said Sunday, during the dedication of Tohono Chul's new Sonoran Seasons Garden. "It's incredible."
Wilson walked "every trail" at Tohono Chul a few days before Sunday's events. Along the way, he saw a tree "about this big when we planted it," his hand near his waist, that now brushes the sky. Wilson found docents to be knowledgeable and friendly. And the biscuits and gravy at the Tohono Chul Tea Room were just right.
"I'm really impressed with this place," Wilson said. His only wish was that Jean could be there.
Jean's memory is preserved in the Dry Summer garden, one of the five gardens in the new Sonoran Seasons Garden display. She is remembered near a graceful palo verde tree that was on the property, which was the Wilson home, before the couple "breathed life into this park," according to its board chairman, Mark Barmann. The tree is "a living testimony to Jean, their children and their children's families," Barmann said.
A plaque to Jean Wilson expresses "heartfelt appreciation for your gift of Tohono Chul Park. Our community is enriched thanks to your generosity."
Richard Wilson thanked a number of people Sunday, among them "the representative of the shopping center" who wanted to buy the Ina Road ground to build retail. He was asked if the Wilsons could keep their home, where the Tea Room is today.
"No problem," the man said. "We'll buy you a park somewhere else."
"That's all you needed to say to my wife," Wilson said.
Barmann recalled the architect Christopher Wren, who created St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and upon whose gravestone at St. Paul's is written, in part, "if you seek his monument, look around you."
"Today, we have another visionary, someone whose monument is all around us," Barmann said of Wilson. He called Wilson "the man who has made this salutary moment possible," and in fact "has made every moment possible" at Tohono Chul. in a bucket of water and see what's displaced when you pull it out.
An organization such as Tohono Chul Park "needs an early, committed steward," Barmann said. He acknowledged Alice Herman, for 10 years the park's first executive director, "a leader in every noble aspect of that word" who "literally loved this park forward, and for that we are eternally grateful."
Herman said the Wilsons "had the foresight to preserve this whole site from being under construction." She loved "every minute of" her time as director. "It was a privilege indeed," Herman said.
Herman lauded the staff, the docents and the hundreds of volunteers who have made Tohono Chul Park possible." Even today, her friends "tell me they remember my very expensive invitations for a sandwich. They'd come out and open their purse strings."
Barmann praised the work and vision of architect John Douglas of Scottsdale in the Sonoran Seasons Garden.
"The park has been transformed by this garden," said Lisa Phillips, Tohono Chul's acting executive director. Construction and planting of the garden, which occupies the space of a former parking lot, "was enormous," much of it done during the hot summer months. She feels "so fortunate" to be leading the park at this time.
Phillips mentioned the new garden's significant donors — Bruce Seligmann and Karen Junghans, the Spring Garden; Marilyn and Cliff Douglas, the Douglas Pavilion; Chris Beck Patrick and J. Michael Patrick, the Cactus Courtyard; and Jan and Mark Barmann, whose major donation is called the Sonoran Seasons Garden.
"Without their gift, this would still look like an old parking lot," Phillips said.
The evening included mariachi music, "art on the spot" painting by Diana Madaras, Susan Libby and Judy Nakari, silent and live auctions, food, dessert, jazz and more.
"If you think you're important," quipped Wilson, stick your finger