Piney Run Park honors volunteer; 76-year-old nurtured gardens for 15 years


Piney Run Park honored its volunteer of the year yesterday with bouquets, touching tributes and a wooden plaque painted to resemble her many gardens.

Those were most appropriate gifts for 76-year-old Erma Gebb, whose manicured gardens color the Eldersburg park.

"Erma has enriched the lives of all who visit, volunteer or work here," said Elaine Sweitzer, park naturalist. "Her gardens are the most obvious and beautiful contribution. She gives her time and her flowers, which she cultivates for us each year."

Flowers and shrubs surround the gatehouse, the Nature Center and many other focal points because Gebb has planted and nurtured them for nearly 15 years.

"She even donates the flowers; this is a real labor of love," said Loren Lustig, park manager. "You can see that in her person and in her gardens."

As thousands of visitors enter the park each year, they see beds of bright red, yellow, blue and white blooms and deep green shrubs -- not a weed among them.

"Visitors see great beauty right through the growing season, and we have Erma to thank for that," said Lustig. "The first impression of the park is really important, and Erma has made the gatehouse a truly lovely oasis."

Gebb cultivates many of the flowers at her home in Uniontown. But she has a running account at a local garden shop just for her park purchases.

"So much of what she shares with us comes from within," said Melinda Byrd, a former park manager. "Her beautiful gardens come from within, too."

In spring and fall, Gebb is a familiar face at the park entrance as she greets many regulars by name. Whenever there is a lag in traffic, she is in the flower beds, weeding and replanting.

"I always have to have my hands dirty," she said, showing off callouses and unpolished nails. "There is something about working in the earth and seeing things grow. It is my communion with nature."

Piney Run opened in 1976 with Richard Soisson, now the county's deputy director of recreation and parks, as its first manager. He recalled yesterday how difficult it was to get a garden growing then.

"We made a feeble attempt to beautify, but it was a dismal failure," he said. "We just didn't have the time."

"Not such a failure," said Gebb. "Richard's poppies are still growing at the gatehouse."

Gebb mixes perennials and annuals, choosing plants that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The severe summer drought was no match for Gebb's gardening skills.

"I watered and mulched really good right at the beginning," she said. "I haven't watered all summer, and everything is doing fine."

More than 1,000 volunteers provided the park with about 7,000 hours of labor last year, and Gebb was among the most generous, said Lustig.

"That is what is so critically important as we try to stretch county dollars," Lustig said. "We can't do it all within the confines of our staff. The volunteers are the catalysts to make our programs happen here."

Soisson interested Gebb in volunteering soon after she retired from the county Office on Aging in 1984. A few years later, she was hired part time, but she remained the park's full-time volunteer gardener.

"She was so good and dependable, we had to hire her," said Soisson.

To which Gebb replied, "You were desperate."

Gebb has outlasted several managers, nearly all of whom returned for the celebration in her honor. Dressed in a heavy green sweat shirt with "Piney Run Staff" printed in gold letters, she sat in a rocking chair and listened to their testimonials.

"It was much more than that Erma was available," said Jennie DeArmey. "It was her maturity and how much she enjoyed her work. It is not Piney Run unless Erma is here."

"She fits in perfectly at Piney Run," said JoAnn Hunter. "We are so used to seeing her bent over in her flower beds."

"I wouldn't do this if I didn't love it," said Gebb. "This is the greatest pleasure of my life."

Byrd recalled Gebb's enthusiasm for the many park critters. Children often bring an animal to the Nature Center, asking what it is and how to care for it.

"She would handle just about anything, but she would pass on the snakes," said Byrd.

Gebb, an ardent Oriole fan, was the first to leave her party -- she had to rush off to Camden Yards for last night's game against the New York Yankees. Every season, she buys a series of tickets. So far, her attendance has brought the team luck.

"I have seen them win seven games in a row," she said. "If they win tonight, it will be a perfect day."

She will be back at the gatehouse before dawn Saturday for the annual fishing tournament. Once the anglers are out on the lake, she will have time to tend the flower beds.

"She would much rather be in a garden than in any building," said Sweitzer.

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