Of the 20 million people who’ve walked Bellingrath Gardens since its opening in 1932, few have done so with as much knowledge of its blooms — and depth of feeling for the tranquil and vibrant setting — as Bill Barrick.
Nearly every workday for the last 20 years, Barrick has journeyed these paths as Bellingrath’s executive director, a keen-eyed horticulturist aware of soil quality, plant health, irrigation, shade and light. A soft-spoken man with a dry humor, he is also a reflective soul who finds, in a reverential way, the gardens to be a “cathedral” of natural beauty.
Though hale and hardy, Barrick is retiring this summer on his 73rd birthday. The time has come, he says, to turn over managing the profuse locale — a vast display garden with a seasonal round, along with Bessie and Walter Bellingrath’s historic home — to a new generation.
His job has been demanding, not only tending to the landscape with the help of a talented crew, but also heading up a nonprofit, with its responsibilities from managing finances to dialoguing with the board of the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation.
Through ups and downs of the economy, hurricanes and an America whose tastes in travel and entertainment have, like gardens, evolved over the decades, Barrick has helped maintain Bellingrath as a refuge for visitors from all over the world — a place to be “soothed,” to learn about nature, to lose oneself, even the least botanical among us, in a place of beauty, outside of time.
With his wife, Jessica, who established Friends of Bellingrath Gardens, Barrick plans to travel in retirement. Among their favorite destinations are gardens of the world, from Italy to Japan. But in his final weeks as director, the destination that still captivates him most, absorbs and inspires him, is the ground beneath his feet.
“This is like our child,” he says as he takes a visitor on a tour. “I want to make sure Bellingrath will be taken care of, that it will be nurtured into the future.”
Following the Sun
“I was surrounded by horticulture,” Barrick explains, “from the beginning.”
Born and raised in Dothan, Alabama, the son of Beth and engineer George Barrick, young Bill discovered gardening pleasures.
His grandparents lived 10 miles away in Webb, Alabama, and Edgar Ivey, who would live to 101, was proud of his flowers. “I remember Granddaddy’s rows of zinnias and marigolds. He grew flowers for the church.”
In his garage, Barrick keeps a tool of his granddad’s that evokes long-ago days helping out with planting. “When I hold my grandfather’s hoe, I feel connected. It’s worn smooth with his hands.”
His mother made their house feel like a nursery. “You could hardly walk on the porch for all the flowerpots.”
By the time he was an undergrad at Auburn, he turned his attention to studying the science of plants, focusing on horticulture. A college trip to Bellingrath, where he was fascinated by the Asian garden, deepened his interest. Given his delight in the design of gardens, he got a Master of Science at Auburn, then headed to Michigan State, acquiring his doctorate in landscape horticulture.
He signed on as an assistant professor of ornamental horticulture at the University of Florida, and was set, knowing he’d spend his years in the academy. But fate had other plans.
One day, at 33, he discovered a mole on the back of his leg — melanoma. It metastasized into his lymph nodes. “I was in experimental chemotherapy for two years,” Barrick says. “What I learned is that, generally, less than 5 percent make it through who have it at that degree.
“During my cancer, I realized how lucky I was to be alive.” The experience changed him profoundly.
When Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, came calling with an invitation to be its director of gardens, he took the leap. “I thought I’d work there for a year then return to teaching.”
At Callaway, he discovered the joy of welcoming visitors to a public garden the Callaway family founded in the 1950s. He realized, without doubt, his passion was design, “the master plan” of a garden setting.
He met a young woman from Asheville, Jessica McCollum, who was at Callaway working with South Central Bell. “If I’d known I’d meet and marry Bill I’d have taken botany,” Jessica says, laughing. “But gardens were not part of my life.”
They soon were.
With Bill over his illness, the couple settled into the sweet life of small-town Georgia as part of the Callaway Gardens community, figuring, as Bill had when a professor at Florida, his career road was straightforward.
Another call came, this one from lower Alabama. He was 53 years old.
While taking his visitor today on the gardens tour — by the Rotary Rose Garden, up a path of bright phlox, delphinium, and dianthus — Barrick pauses to sit on a swing facing the Great Lawn. He says it was at this exact spot, 20 years ago, where he and Jessica decided to start this new phase of their lives.
Labor of Love
Bellingrath was glorious, indeed, in 1999, but it faced challenges, he recalls. Devastated by Hurricane Frederic in 1979, it had lost so many trees that it transformed from largely being “a shade garden” to “a sun garden.” He can look out today and see trees planted when he arrived that have grown majestic.
There were structural demands, too, including upgrading of the historic home, designed by Mobile architect George Rogers, where Bessie and Walter Bellingrath hosted friends and dignitaries. The house and gardens had a mystique, given their history, all their own.
In “The Gardens That Coke Built” on the Bellingrath website, museum director Tom McGehee recounts that Walter’s $10,000 purchase of the Coca-Cola franchise in Mobile in the early 1900s became the source of the family’s wealth.
Walter’s fishing camp, Belle Camp, was transformed into Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The permanent home was completed in 1935.
Updating the house and improving the gardens was one of Barrick’s missions.
There was outreach, too.
Jessica Barrick started reunions of Azalea Trail Maids, and special events were put in place, like Bellingrath’s Magic Christmas in Lights. And Bill soon made his presence known city-wide, bringing Bellingrath into the civic conversation.
“Since we moved here,” Jessica says, “not only has Bill’s creative side continued to prosper but his leadership and community involvement, too. He made connections, built bridges to the community.”
He gave increased visibility to Bellingrath as chairman of the National Horticultural Society.
All the while, he has felt beholden to the vision of Walter and Bessie. “I’m always asking myself,” he says of changes and developments to the complex, “would it please the Bellingraths?”
Dusk is Barrick’s favorite time of day, and sometimes he finds himself alone, moving along the paths, noting new plantings, making sure the greenhouses tucked behind the trees are in order. Autumn, with its cascading chrysanthemums, is his favorite season — and feeling, in what he refers to as “Zen” moments, spiritual uplift. “Gardens provide rest and restoration,” he says. “Nurturing a garden is like nurturing people.”
By Mirror Lake, a serene landscape of water and flowers he revitalized with camellias and azaleas, he finds his own spirit nurtured, too.
In his essay, “Creating Gardens of Paradise,” in the book “How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth,” he wrote: “In Genesis 2:8 we read, ‘And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed.’ Perhaps that verse alone provides us with the undeniable truth that there is a spiritual link to gardening.”
“It’s God’s creation,” he says, as the sun throws long shadows on the falling day, “and we’re called to be stewards.”