After retiring as the Director of the Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Greg Armstrong began volunteering with the Holy Wisdom Monastery in Westport. This eventually led him out of retirement and back into employment, as he is now the Director of Land Management and Environmental Education at the monastery. He has also been instrumental in getting its Friends group, Friends of Wisdom Prairie up and running.
He smiled asking, “Whatever happened to my retirement?”
But he doesn’t seem to mind.
“The Holy Wisdom Monastery is absolutely an extraordinary place,” he said.
It began as a residential school for girls in 1953 by a group of sisters from Iowa, and over the years it has gradually evolved from a Roman Catholic organization to an ecumenical Benedictine monastery. In 2006, it “became the first ecumenical monastery in the new world,” he said.
He noted that its mission weaves prayer, hospitality, justice and care for the earth into a shared way of life as an ecumenical Benedictine monastery.
“These people care about the earth a lot,” he said, adding that in the 1990s, the sisters began restoring native ecological communities such as wildlife, butterflies, birds, insects and microorganisms back onto the land that had been “elbowed out of the way because of agriculture.”
He first became involved with the monastery by joining the Benedictine Life Foundation Board, the fundraising arm of the monastery, and also volunteered by working on the land there. He was later hired to assist the Director of Development on the Wisdom Prairie Project campaign, which involved the purchase of 53 acres of land for prairie restoration. And last summer he took on his current role.
He is enjoying his work there, which includes developing environmental educational programs for the monastery’s constituents. And he is hopeful that the Friends of Wisdom Prairie will continue to grow.
He said the group is “a lot of fun” with members enjoying educational programs through a series of dinner lectures, having the opportunity to work on the land at the monastery on scheduled work days, visiting other natural areas, and touring the Holy Wisdom Monastery land.
Armstrong grew up in Cooksville, near Stoughton, which he described as a “charming little village” that still has its one-room school house. His parents owned the general store in town, and Armstrong thought that upon graduating from high school, he might study and pursue a business-related career as well. However, when it came time for him to declare a major at University of Wisconsin in Madison, he realized he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he thought to himself, “I’m going to go and see the world.”
He quit school, worked at the Chevrolet plant in Janesville for nine months, and chose to go to Japan, as he knew a Japanese exchange student while in high school. After writing her a letter, it was determined that he could live with friends of her family. He stayed for three months during the spring time when the cherry blossoms were blooming. They were beautiful, as were the gardens.
“They have an artistic ability that is just extraordinary,” he said of the Japanese gardens.
After that experience, he knew that he wanted to pursue something related to gardening and came back to study and receive a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Also while there, he completed two internships. The first was with the Milwaukee County Parks, which he said had one of the “best park departments in the country” and then other was at the Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, which he described as “incredible.”
Loving this practical experience, he decided he wanted to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, as he said it was the “most important botanical garden in the world.” After the director at the Longwood Gardens wrote a letter for him, he was accepted and stayed for the duration of its three-year program. “What a wonderful life experience that was,” he said, noting that the program was both academic and practical experience in scope.
After he arrived back home, he was offered a position at Smith College, a private women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. At 27 years old, he became the director of the botanical gardens there. He also taught horticulture and obtained a master’s degree in botany, and said smiling, “I’m one of the few men in this world who has a degree from Smith College.”
He stayed there almost 13 years before accepting the position as director of the Arboretum at UW-Madison in 1983, which he described as the “crowning jewel” of his career. He noted that the Arboretum was the place where ecological restoration had its beginnings, and that the Curtis Prairie there is the first restored prairie in the world.
“During my time at the Arboretum, we made this the focus of several program initiatives, all focused on furthering this new kind of relationship between humans and nature,” he said. He became the Director Emeritus in 2004, right before joining the Benedictine Life Foundation board at the Holy Wisdom Monastery in 2005.
His wife, Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, works at the Arboretum, and is the director of an environmental education program, Earth Partnership for Schools, which was begun by Armstrong when he was still there. Now a national program, students in K-12 programs can experience ecological restoration by working on prairie, woodland or wetland areas on or near their schools, he said.
He likes the program so much that he hopes to one day implement something similar at the monastery, and include a spirituality component. A church congregation or other group could then learn how to have a constructive and positive relationship with the natural world motivated by their religion, he noted.
Armstrong has two “wonderful children” from a previous marriage: Miles, who lives with his wife and two children in the Madison area; and a daughter, Marjorie (Molly), who was recently married and lives in California. Cheryl has four children of her own, along with three grandchildren.
He is enjoying his work at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, as well as its natural beauty. For more information about the monastery or its Friends’ group, Friends of Wisdom Prairie, visit its website at benedictinewomen.org.