Dave Tognoni and Karen Scheeter both hail from Manchester, Missouri. Though, with a laugh, they make the distinction that they each have their own favorite grocery store in town, for all intents and purposes, they endearingly call themselves Manchester “neighbors.” But it’s the drive they make to a destination within the city of St. Louis that has brought them together as friends who share a common passion.
“This week, it’ll be four times that I’ve come down here. The distance is never a problem,” Tognoni said.
“It’s about a 20-mile drive in, but it’s no big deal. It’s worth it,” Scheeter echoed.
Scheeter and Tognoni are Missouri Botanical Garden docents – a program that celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.
On Sept. 17, 1968, more than 100 years after the Garden was founded, the Garden Guide Docent Program was founded. In the years since, thousands of motivated volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden have shared their knowledge, passion and dedication for the No. 3 Botanical Garden in the world with visitors from all over. The Latin word docent means “to teach or to lecture,” but it’s clear the docents do much more than teach or lecture; they are the heart of the Garden.
Scheeter and Tognoni were among dozens of docents who attended a reception held in their honor at the Garden on Thursday, Sept. 27.
The reception was held in the Spink Pavilion – a building lined with windows that overlook the domed Climatron, whose reflection can be seen glinting onto the lily ponds below – just one of the many breathtaking scenes through which docents take visitors on their daily tours.
There were speeches laden with glowing praise, laughs and even a few tender moments. An essence of camaraderie could be felt throughout the room.
“History is wonderful to have in the archives, but you make it a living history,” Missouri Botanical Garden President Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson said in his speech. “You guys always deliver. The docents have always been stars.”
This living legacy is something Scheeter and Tognoni have joined, each for their own reasons.
“My wife and I used to come down here quite a bit and, after I retired, I thought, you know, this is a nice place to be,” Tognoni, who has been a docent since 2010, said. “The Garden is open 364 days a year and every time you see something different, and that’s what’s fun about it. You can give a tour four times a week, but every time you see something different.”
“Even if when I come here, I’m in a down mood, people here are so full of energy and the visitors are always interested. I love showing the garden to them,” Scheeter, who has been a docent since 2014, said. “It’s just a beautiful place to spend time.”
Their reverence and awe of the garden is something imparted onto visitors.
Sheila Voss, vice president of education at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said in her speech to the docents, “You can get lost looking at the inside of a flower with a little kid. You live it; you manifest it; you are fascination, awe, wonder and curiosity embodied.”
Voss emphasized that this quality is something that can never be replicated.
“I recently read an article and the headline caught my attention: ‘The best tour guide may be in your purse.’ … In this article, they used a phrase that really bugged me: ‘pocket-sized docents.’ I am telling you right here, right now,” Voss said, “that never, ever, will such a thing exist here at the Missouri Botanical Garden as a pocked-sized docent.”
In an era where technology reigns, some things will never change. The person-to-person interaction between Garden docent and Garden visitor – the history shared, the sights reveled, the musings of inquisitive minds encouraged – is something that has remained constant for 50 years; it’s one of the intangible qualities of a docent that can never be replaced.
In honor of the docents’ 50th anniversary, the Garden is working on an Oral History project, which will compile docents’ stories from over the decades and showcase them to the public.
You can see the docents in action by attending one of two daily tours at the Garden – or by becoming a docent yourself.
“If somebody is looking for something to do in their spare time, if they want to volunteer some place, this is the place to go,” Tognoni said. “The people here are so nice, not only your fellow volunteers but the staff. And you learn a lot. We meet people from all over the world.”
“The plants are amazing, but it’s about so much more,” Scheeter said. “It’s the history, it’s the people, it’s St. Louis.”
To learn more about the Missouri Botanical Garden and its educational programs, visit missouribotanicalgarden.org.