Rob Galbraith, a young boy in the early 60s, remembers regularly visiting the Rochester, N.Y. home of John R. Williams, his pioneering great-grandfather.
Most memorable about those visits was seeing the byproduct of Williams’s amateur avocation: botany. The backyard was filled with several hundred young oak, maple and elm trees. Acorns were placed in coffee cans filled with dirt and propped up on shelves, window sills, and other surfaces inside the home. In a nearby nursery, scores of young trees germinated.
“They were growing everywhere,” Galbraith recalled this in a new interview. “All over the place.”
Williams began to nurture trees this way in the 1920s. He had a single goal: transform the grounds at the nearby Oak Hill Country Club was transformed from an overworked parcel of barren farmland to a lush, verdant golf course with towering hardwoods.
With the help of other members of his club, Dr. Williams continued to plant trees for four decades. The joke was that after the first 40 000 seedlings, Dr. Williams stopped counting.
It is colossal Oak The Hill Face-lift was successful. In the late 1940s the course, which was designed by Donald J. Ross and had 36 holes on it, became a national success. It hosted its first big golf event. As the course’s reputation grew in ensuing decades, three U.S. In the following decades, three U.S. Opens were held at the course. The fourth P.G.A. This week, the fourth P.G.A. Oak Hill has begun.
Dr. Williams’s abiding devotion to the club’s arboriculture is also a blossoming story line this week because a recent renovation of the grounds removed hundreds of aging trees for agronomic, competitive and aesthetic reasons. It has altered the look of some holes and sparked debate, but Dr. Williams’s influence on a landmark 20th century golf course endures in the thousands of magnificent trees that remain — not just adjacent to fairways but adorning the perimeter and social areas of the 355-acre site.
Commonly called the club’s patron saint, Dr. Williams, who frequented the club in work overalls and muddy boots while planting, is the man who put the oak in Oak Hill.
Dr. Williams died in 1965 at the age of 91. Shortly thereafter, during a service at the club in his honor, his granddaughter, Susan R. Williams, listened as a chorus sang a verse of Joyce Kilmer’s renowned poem put to music: “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree …”
Susan R. Williams conjured that remembrance for the foreword of a book prepared for the Williams family many years ago and added another fascinating anecdote to her grandfather’s lore. The zealous hunter scoured all over the globe for oak acorns to be planted at Oak Hill.
“Our family vacations frequently included side trips to specific trees in search of acorns for Grandpa,” She wrote. It included getting acorns from England at Sherwood Forest and the Shakespeare oak at Stratford-on-Avon, and from the oaks planted by George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va. And it was not just family members who were recruited for the international harvest.
“When people in the armed services left Rochester and went to various parts of the world, they knew to send back acorns to Dr. Williams,” Galbraith said. “Schoolchildren on vacations did the same thing and brought some back home with them.”
Then he added: “The community was a lot smaller then, and while I don’t know how he did it, my great-grandfather was very proficient at getting the word out that he was collecting acorns.”
It did not hurt that Dr. Williams was one of Rochester’s most prominent citizens — and with good reason.
Raised in Canada, Dr. Williams’s family arrived in Rochester when he was a teenager. Galbraith is the first direct descendant to Dr. Williams. Oak Hill Country Club, said his great-grandfather became a teacher and later graduated from the University of Michigan’s medical school. Williams was nationally known for his work on blood analyses as the chief physician at Rochester Hospital. He also established in 1916 a laboratory which became the leader in studying metabolic disorders.
He was the first doctor in the United States, six years later to give insulin to a patient with diabetes. He also surveyed 7,000 Rochester homes to study the safety of the city’s milk supplies and found dangerous, unsatisfactory refrigeration conditions that would lead to illness. He revised refrigeration standards for milk trucks, as well. Some of the guidelines he developed were adopted nationwide.
Coming to the aid of his community seemed to come naturally to Dr. Williams, who was active in many civic endeavors, especially within the city’s museum community. Dr. Williams was a natural at helping his community. He had been involved in many civic endeavors, especially within the city’s museum community. Oak Hill, who had moved his company from the Rochester downtown to Pittsford suburb in 1926 began studying trees to try to make the property more attractive.
Williams did not undertake the project for any personal gain.
“What’s most interesting about Dr. Williams is that he wasn’t really a golfer,” Sal Maiorana is a Rochester-based sportswriter who has chronicled the history of Rochester in his 2013 book. Oak Hill’s history. “He joined the club specifically as a social thing. But he became fascinated with trees, put in a tremendous amount of time understanding everything about them and consulted arborists around the world. He knew he could help the club, and the Oak Hill board of directors realized that he was the man for the job.”
How about planting 40,000 trees? What are the practical implications?
“It is a lot of trees, but actually I’d always heard it was 50,000,” Galbraith laughed. “But he lived to be 91 so he did it consistently over a long period of time. And he had people help plant the trees.”
Then he added: “If you look at everything he accomplished throughout this entire life, he was one of those individuals who would set his mind to things and then just do it.”
Dr. Williams’s affinity for trees led to another permanent contribution to the club’s grounds: a living tribute to noteworthy contributors to golf called the Hill of Fame. Beginning in 1956, Dr. Williams began selecting trees on a rise adjacent to the 13th hole on the club’s East Course that would be affixed with bronze plaques commemorating such golfing luminaries as Ben Hogan, Annika Sorenstam, Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez. Each plaque was unveiled with a special ceremony. Up to date, 45 individuals, amateur golfers, administrators and others, have received recognition. As Dr. Williams would say, a tree is a far better legacy than a gravestone at a cemetery.
A northern red oak plant was planted inside a house in the 1990s. Oak Hill’s The nursery, located between Rochester’s former Genesee Hospital (now used as a medical center) and the adjacent parking garage was planted on manicured lawn. It has now grown more than 25 feet tall, providing shade on a path used by visitors and health workers.
This particular seedling’s location was chosen deliberately. The property was owned by Dr. Williams. He lived there and ran his practice. Trees were planted in his backyard.
Repeat this phrase over and over again.