Articles,  Features

World Honored Park’s Gardener (Last part)

Thursday, January 28, 1943

The Call-Bulletin today presents the final chapter of the late J Lawrence Tool’e intimate biography of Uncle John McLaren, veteran park superintendent and “father” of  Golden Gate Park. 

By J. Lawrence Toole

With a fervor of affection and gratitude, San Francisco for decades celebrated the natal day of John McLaren, “father” of its public parks. 

Underlying each succeeding civic observance of the day was the sentiment expressed many years ago by the late James Rolph Jr. As mayor and spokesman for the city:

“Life in San Francisco has been better and more beautiful since the coming of John McLaren.”

The sentence expressed in a few words what San Francisco felt.

Life IS better in San Francisco. And more than any other man or group of men the city knew in the last half century, John McLaren helped make it so. 

That may sound a bit dogmatic and uncalled for in an unopinionative sketch. But it happens to be true.

Tribute From City

Officially, in the last quarter century San Francisco recognized this truth in every way that lay in its power. It erected statues and busts and hung paintings of him in public places. It amended its charter to make his post as superintendent of parks a life-time job. It gave his name to the second largest park in the city and to a park lake. 

Generations of the city’s school children made “our friend John McLaren” an idol of their affection and veneration. Every group of its citizens, civic, social and political, strove to do him honor. To no other city employee in the long roster of San Francisco’s, or any other city’s, came the honors heaped on the little gardener who came to Golden Gate Park to make life better and more beautiful.

Not only in San Francisco was his worth appreciated. Universities and horticultural societies throughout America and the world honored him in parchments and medals of high distinction. The University of California gave him an honorary degree. Somewhere buried and forgotten in the clutter of his office was a medal symbolic of America’s highest horticultural award, given him by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1924.

Other Honors Too

Somewhere lost in his crowded desk was an engraved parchment of the Royal Horticultural Society of London naming him an associate of honor, the thirty-first individual to be given this distinction since the society was formed some 150 years ago. He was a member of similar societies in South America, Australia, Europe and the Orient, was a familiar of nearly every great living botanist in the world, and knew intimately others he had outlived. Through these friendships and mutual admiration, Golden Gate Park was enriched with many a strange exotic plant and flower and its fame spread throughout the world. 

A world figure in his own profession was this shy, unassuming little gardener in San Francisco’s service, who still, day after day, was tending to its parks and gardens, though by civic law and logic he should have been cast into the oblivion of retirement more than twenty-five years ago.

By city charter rules of that time, John McLaren was slated for retirement age when he reached his seventieth birthday, in 1916. But by that time San Francisco’s devotion and admiration  for the old man was at flood tide. Under the spell of its gratitude to him for Golden Gate Park, and for the incomparable beauty he had created at the 1915 Exposition, San Francisco would not hear of his retirement. Its gratitude to the little man who had done so much for the city and especially for the health and happiness of its children, knew no bounds. Demands for his retention beat like a loud surf on the City Hall.

Contract for Life

In the end, McLaren’s birthday gift from that city that year was a life contract as superintendent of its parks and a doubled salary. McLaren was tending his garden, unconcerned with anything else, when news was brought to him of what Mayor Rolph and the supervisors had done. 

“I’m verra glad,” he said, simply, “no for the bit more money, which I dinna need, but for the time it will gie me to do a lot of work I’d planned.”

By unanimous action, the supervisors had amended the city’s retirement and pension law to exempt employees paid more than $500 a month, and had raised McLaren’s salary above that amount. This unprecedented action did more than give the aging gardener security in his cherished job, and put a little more money in his pocket. It gave him a new lease on life, swear those who knew him intimately at the time.

Influence of Park

Every San Franciscan knows Golden Gate Park more or less intimately, and it is a safe bet each one has felt the solace and uplift of its beauty, in big or little measure.

Odd that the park which has been a supreme influence in the life and happiness and health of San Francisco for so long should have received such scant attention from writers of books and histories. Not so odd, maybe, is the fact that the beauty and charm of it never has been pictured in word adequately. Only John McLaren could do that. But suggest that to him and he’d laugh.

“What me describe the park?” He’d say. “I tell ye, it is beautiful, and there’s naething like it in any city in the world. What more is there to say? There it is oot there, nearly as bonnie today as you’ll ever see it.”

‘Living Monument’

No more fitting taglines to this sketch of John McLaren can be thought than those from a Call-Bulletin editorial on the occasion of his ninety-first birthday:

“His life is a moral to all who would live long, remain useful and healthy.

“Ever interested in his fellow men, and particularly in children, his hands and the skill of his brain have fashioned the elements of nature into beautiful lanes, bridle paths, lakes, lagoons, waterfalls, acres of flowers, rare shrubs and sylvan glades for the happiness of others.

“Golden Gate Park, which he has created, is a living monument to his life, vision and skill.”

(The End.)

The full Call-Bulletin 13-part series of articles on John McLaren: