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for the Love of Roses

By Mary Beth Roach

In early April, volunteers from the Syracuse Rose Society took turns to prepare the Dr. E.M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden in Thornden Park in Syracuse for the season. The rose garden has approximate 3,500 rose bushes, representing about 335 varieties. 

It’s a sentiment expressed by Leon Ginenthal, 68, a member of the Syracuse Rose Society, and the reason why he travels from his home in Ithaca Wednesday mornings during the spring, summer and fall to volunteer at the Dr. E.M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden in Thornden Park on Syracuse’s east side.

It’s also a feeling shared by the volunteers of the Syracuse Rose Society who were gathered one Wednesday morning in early April as they began their work to prepare the garden and its approximate 3,500 rose bushes, representing about 335 varieties, for the season.

“We have a good time together. We share each other’s joys and each other’s heartaches in our lives. And we share that common love. There’s something about working together in the dirt, sharing a passion,” Ginenthal said.

While not all 125 members of the organization volunteer each week to dig in the dirt, there can be as many as 20 tilling the beds, weeding, trimming, fertilizing, pruning, planting, deadheading, watering and tending to the climbers that wind around the 36 arches along four of the garden’s cobblestone pathways that lead to its gazebo in the center. Volunteers work Wednesday mornings from April until November and some Saturdays early in the season to make the garden the jewel that it is. The Syracuse Rose Society has estimated that well more than 3,000 volunteer hours are logged annually.

On this one particular April morning, 91-year-old Jim Wagner, of Fayetteville, is helping with one of the climbers. A volunteer with the group since 2001, Wagner appreciates the love of roses that the membership shares.

There are other benefits to the work. Syracuse resident, Mary Pat McHale, 70, has been a volunteer for what she calls “12 glorious years,” and while she enjoys the camaraderie, she also likes learning about the roses. Meanwhile David Wiediger, 73, of Syracuse, has been with the group for 10 years, and he says, “gardening is something that makes me whole.”

Like McHale, Pam Dooling, of the town of Dewitt, enjoys the companionship and the learning, but also likes that it keeps her active and gets her outside in the fresh air. Since starting with the Syracuse Rose Society in her 40s, Dooling has served as membership chair, publicity chair, rose show chair and president.

The love of roses is the only requirement needed to volunteer at the Park. No special skills are needed.

“We’ll give them tools. They don’t need any special knowledge. We’ll teach them from the ground up,” Dooling notes. While her father always had roses wherever they lived, Dooling says she didn’t know very much about them. On this morning, between doing her gardening work, she enthusiastically shows a visitor around the space, explaining various rose varieties and their care.

The Syracuse Rose Society’s signature event, the Rose Day celebration was held in mid-June, and as Ginenthal said, “In June, this is the closest thing to heaven there is.”

The organization will be at the New York State Fair and in September, it will host the American Rose Society New York District Convention.

For those interested in learning about or volunteering with the Syracuse Rose Society, visit