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James Wessel Gerdemann --Obituary

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James Wessel Gerdemann --Obituary

Posted: 1230577274000
Classification: Obituary
Surnames: Gerdemann, Wessel, Olbrich
James Wessel Gerdemann

James Wessel Gerdemann, 87, of Yachats, Ore., died Dec. 19, 2008.

He was born Nov. 13, 1921 to Carl Gerdemann and Cora Wessel in Pendleton, Mo. He attended local schools and graduated from high school at 16. He then went to work for his family's store, “The Gerdemann Store,” which his father and uncle owned and managed and was in the family for about 90 years.

From an early age Jim had a passion for growing plants. He'd tuck his cactus collection in the cellar during cold winters. When he accompanied his father to St. Louis on buying trips for the store, his father would drop Jim off at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

He earned his undergraduate degree in botany at the University of Missouri. He paid his way through college by working as a waiter at the girls' college, living cheaply at a co-op, and working for 35 cents-an-hour at the university herbarium. At the herbarium, as a freshman, he was recognized for his botanical knowledge and was given the responsibility of counting seeds and correcting mistakes in the inventory records.

During his summers in college, he worked in the forests of Oregon for the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service controlling White Pine Blister Rust, a fungal disease. This was the beginning of his appreciation of the climate and native flora of Oregon.

He later accepted an assistantship at the University of California at Berkeley. During his graduate studies, he was advised to pursue his doctorate in plant pathology rather than botany. He completed his master's degree and doctorate degree in three years and was then offered a position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1949, he met Janice Olbrich, and they were married six months later on July 2, 1949. The couple had three sons, Steve, Dale, and Glenn, who fulfilled their desire to have a family. The whole family traveled often to Oregon to camp and hike.

His career blossomed at Urbana. He is credited with research in mycorrhiza fungi and is much respected for his work in the genus Rhododendron and for developing several tropical vireya species for hardiness. While at U of I, he went on two sabbaticals, one to Scotland and one to Corvallis. He and Janice also traveled to New Zealand, France, England and the Shetland Islands with their mycorrhiza friends.

In 1981, he retired from the University of Illinois. The Gerdemanns then moved to Yachats, where they purchased an acre of spruce and hemlock bordering the Siuslaw National Forest, built their home, and began developing a botanical garden.

The garden has grown to almost four acres and is a treasure of biological diversity with exotic plants not ordinarily grown in the region, native species and hybrids developed by Gerdemann to survive in the coastal climate. The garden is also an attraction that draws scientists, naturalists, gardeners, researchers and students from around the world.

An irrevocable conservation easement has been established to ensure the entire Gerdemann Botanical Garden will remain intact, preserved as a living legacy. To celebrate this accomplishment, April 12, 2008 was declared Gerdemann Day in Yachats and celebrated with speeches, displays and tours of the garden.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Janice Gerdemann; sons, Glenn (Susan) Gerdemann of Champaign, Ill., Dale Gerdemann of Mossinen, Germany and Steve (Gail) Gerdemann of Albany; brother, Paul (Wanda) Gerdemann of Missouri; grandchildren, Myra of Champaign, Ill., Greta and Stella of Mossingen, Germany, Ben and Yuka of Curitiba, Brazil and Alex of Austin, Texas and nephew, Ed of Arizona.

A celebration of life will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 at the Overleaf Lodge Conference Facility in Yachats. Memorial donations may be made for the Gerdemann Botanical Garden Endowment Fund to View the Future, P.O. Box 443, Yachats, OR 97498. To learn more about the garden, visit

Affordable Burial and Cremation in Newport is handling arrangements.

The News Times, Newport, OR Dec. 29, 2008
NOTE: "Yachats" is pronounced "Ya-hots".
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