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'Earth Mother' of Williamsburg retires

  • Madelynn Watkinson Retires
    Madelynn Watkinson Retires  Madelynn Watkinson, keeper of the College's Adams Garden, retires.  Stephen Salpukas
  • Book of Seeds
    Book of Seeds  Madelynn Watkinson keeps a "book of seeds" of everyone she has given seeds over the years from all around the world.  Stephen Salpukas
  • Early Spring
    Early Spring  The Adams Garden in early spring.  Courtesy of the William & Mary Departmnet of Biology
  • Madelynn Watkinson in the Adams Garden
    Madelynn Watkinson in the Adams Garden  Madelynn Watkinson (Middle) with friends in the College's Adams Garden.  Photo by Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph
  • Birdbath
    Birdbath  A birdbath welcomes the Adams Garden's feathered guests.  Courtesy of William & Mary Department of Biology
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On February 8, the William & Mary and Williamsburg communities will say good-bye to one of their most well-known volunteers. Madelynn Watkinson, known as the beloved caretaker of the College’s Adams Garden, will retire at the age of 86.

For more than two decades, Madelynn Watkinson has volunteered countless hours of her time to both the beauty of the Adams Garden (also known as the College’s “Secret Garden”) and the greater Williamsburg community. A recent article in the Virginia Gazette proclaimed Watkinson the “Earth Mother” of Williamsburg.

“Taking care of the gardens and going on digs with students has been so much fun all these years,” said Watkinson, who has given numerous hours of her time to horticultural and geology projects with William & Mary students and faculty. The campus community will gather at 4 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Wren Building to honor Watkinson.

It all began when Watkinson decided to move from Connecticut to Williamsburg in 1986 to be closer to her daughter, Barbara Watkinson, professor of art and art history at the College. 

While driving down Richmond Road one evening, Madelynn noticed an old fence and triangle of weeds adjacent to Sorority Court and North Boundary Street. She decided to take matters into her own hands and began weeding and caring for the Adams Garden. Two parking tickets later and a visit to the College’s facilities management office, Watkinson convinced the College to give her a parking pass so that she could volunteer and care for the garden full-time.

The rest has been history.

Named in memory of Gregory S. Adams ’81, the garden has become a true gem for the Williamsburg community. More than 20,000 faculty, staff, students, alumni and members of the community are estimated visit the garden each year to smell the flowers that are in bloom or enjoy a quiet moment on one of its benches. Many come back to simply visit with Madelynn.

The unofficial gardener of Williamsburg keeps a “book of seeds” that journals signatures, mementos and trinkets she has collected over the years while tending the garden and overseeing beautification efforts in town.

“I have given seeds to students from all over the world, people from South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Czech Republic,” she said. 

Her reach stretches beyond just the Adams Garden. Throughout her time in Williamsburg, Madelynn has also volunteered her horticultural expertise on projects with Bruton Parish Church, the Christopher Wren Foundation, Muscarelle Museum of Art, and the green house in Millington Hall. She also studied and participated in archaeological digs in the area alongside Gerald H. Johnson, distinguished professor of geology at William & Mary and his students.

In the spring and summer months, Madelynn can be seen in Adams Garden giving children “million year-old sea shells” she has found on digs. Her passion for not only gardening, but helping others has impacted the lives of many. For example, she describes having enjoyed meeting her “heroes for the day” in the College’s military science program who have helped feed birds in her bird houses in the Adams Garden.

She has been recognized for her dedication to serving the community by numerous organizations. In 1993, she was the recipient of the National Arbor Day Award by the Williamsburg community garden club. According to the Arbor Day Web site, “Winners have demonstrated the very best in tree planting and care, Arbor Day celebrations, partnerships, community projects, and environmental education.” In 1998, she was given the College’s Prentis Award, which seeks to “recognize those individuals in the Williamsburg community for their strong civic involvement and support of William & Mary.”

Madelynn will be moving to Maryland with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson to volunteer with theaters, something she “really loved to do in her younger days.”

But her heart will always remain on that small triangle piece of property at the College of William and Mary.

“It has been great watching how the College has grown and changed over time,” she said. “I will miss Williamsburg, this is truly a special place.”