Rob Galbraith recalls driving regularly as a child to Rochester, New York, in the early 1960s, where his great-grandfather John R. Williams, who had been a pioneer of medicine in the area, lived.
What was most memorable for me about these visits was seeing the by-product of Williams’s amateur pursuits: botany. Several hundred oak, elm and maple seedlings grew in the backyard. Inside the home, dozens of acorns were planted in soil-filled coffee cans that sat on windowsills and shelves. Numerous embryonic trees germinated at a nursery on the property.
“They grew everywhere,” Galbraith, now 63, recalled in a recent interview. “Overall.”
dr Williams had been tending trees this way since the 1920s with a single goal: to transform the grounds of the nearby Oak Hill Country Club from barren, overstressed farmland into a lush golf course with towering hardwoods, shrubs, and other greenery.
Along with other club members who offered to help, Dr. Williams only started the reforestation campaign after tens of thousands of trees had been planted over the course of four decades. He once joked that after the first 40,000 he stopped counting how many new seedlings he brought into the club.
Oak Hill’s colossal facelift worked. In the late 1940s, the club, whose 36 holes were designed by noted golf course architect Donald J. Ross, gained national recognition and hosted its first major golf tournament. As the golf course’s reputation grew over the following decades, the thriving western New York location has hosted three US Opens, the Ryder Cup and numerous other significant events. The fourth PGA Championship is taking place in Oak Hill this week.
dr Williams’ ongoing commitment to the club’s arboriculture is also a thriving storyline this week, as a recent renovation of the site removed hundreds of mature trees for agronomic, competitive and aesthetic reasons. It changed the appearance of some holes and sparked debate, but Dr. Williams’ influence on a groundbreaking 20-acre golf course.
dr Williams, commonly referred to as the club’s patron saint and often visiting the club while planting in work overalls and muddy boots, is the man who planted the oak tree at Oak Hill.
dr Williams died in 1965 at the age of 91. Shortly thereafter, during a service in his honor at the club, his granddaughter Susan R. Williams listened as a choir sang a verse of Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem, which was set to music: “I don’t think I shall ever see a poem so beautiful.” is like a tree…”
Susan R. Williams evoked this memory in the foreword to a book written many years ago for the Williams family and added another fascinating anecdote to her grandfather’s lore. He eagerly scoured the world for acorns from famous oak trees to plant at Oak Hill.
“Our family vacations often included trips to certain trees in search of acorns for grandpa,” she wrote. This included sourcing acorns from England in Sherwood Forest and the Shakespeare Oak in Stratford-on-Avon, as well as the oaks planted on George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia. And it wasn’t just family members who were recruited for the international harvest.
“As people in the armed forces left Rochester and went to different parts of the world, they knew they were giving acorns to Dr. Williams had to send back,” Galbraith said. “Students did the same thing over the holidays and brought some home.”
He added, “The community was much smaller then, and while I don’t know how he did it, my great-grandfather was very adept at getting the word out that he was gathering acorns.”
It didn’t hurt that Dr. Williams was one of Rochester’s most prominent citizens – and with good reason.
dr Williams grew up in Canada and his family moved to Rochester when he was a teenager. Galbraith, the first direct descendant of Dr. Williams, who joined Oak Hill Country Club, said his great-grandfather became a teacher and later received his medical degree from the University of Michigan. As chief physician of a Rochester hospital, Dr. Williams received national recognition for his research into blood analysis and in 1916 established a laboratory that became a leader in the study of metabolic disorders, particularly diabetes.
Six years later, Dr. Williams is recognized as the first physician in the United States to administer insulin to a diabetic. He also surveyed 7,000 Rochester homes to examine the safety of the city’s milk supply and found dangerous, unsatisfactory cooling conditions that would lead to illness. He rewrote the refrigeration standards, including those that applied to milk delivery trucks. Some of its policies have been rolled out nationwide.
for dr For Williams, who was involved in many civic causes, particularly in the city’s museum community, helping his community seemed like a natural fit. After moving from its original downtown location to the Rochester suburb of Pittsford in 1926, Oak Hill began to delve deeply into the botany of trees in hopes of improving the vast but desolate lot on which the golf courses sit would to improve.
dr Williams took on the project altruistically, not necessarily out of personal interest.
“The most interesting thing about Dr. Williams is that he wasn’t really a golfer,” said Sal Maiorana, a veteran sportswriter from Rochester whose 2013 book carefully chronicled Oak Hill’s story. “He joined the club specifically for social reasons. But he became interested in trees, investing an enormous amount of time to understand everything about them and consulting arborists around the world. He knew he could help the club and the Oak Hill board recognized he was the man for the job.”
But planted 40,000 trees? How from a practical point of view?
“It’s a lot of trees, but actually I’ve always heard it’s 50,000,” Galbraith said, laughing. “But he lived to be 91, so he’s been doing it consistently over a long period of time. And he had people help plant the trees.”
He added, “If you look at everything he’s accomplished throughout his life, he was one of those people who would focus on things and then just do them.”
dr Williams’ affinity for trees led to another enduring contribution to the club grounds: a vibrant tribute to notable contributors to golf, dubbed the “Hill of Fame”. From 1956, Dr. Williams selected trees on high ground adjacent to the 13th hole on the club’s East Course to house bronze plaques commemorating golf greats such as Ben Hogan, Annika Sorenstam, Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez. The unveiling of each plaque was accompanied by a ceremony. To date, 45 people have received awards, including amateur golfers and administrators. A tree, so Dr. Telling Williams is a lasting legacy far superior to a tombstone in a cemetery.
In the early 1990’s, a northern red oak seedling grown at Oak Hill Nursery was transplanted onto manicured lawns between the former Genesee Hospital in Rochester (now a medical facility) and an adjacent parking garage. The tree has since grown more than 25 feet tall and provides shade for a walkway used by health workers and visitors.
The choice of location for planting this special seedling was no accident. It was once the property of Dr. Williams, where he lived and ran his medical practice and walked in his backyard with young trees.
Over and over again.