Since the age of four, Mike Sullivan’s memory has been rooted in nature. In his hometown of Independence, Missouri, he remembers watching a blue racer slither into a hole to burrow. Mike ran after the snake and held onto him, but it inevitably slipped through his hands, back into the hole. He may have lost the battle with the snake, but one thing is for certain: Mike has been mesmerized with nature ever since.
“I started out as a little kid; I just loved the Earth and enjoyed it,” says Sullivan. “It is like an art form to me in a way when you improve something or change it and then see it develop.”
In February, we celebrated Mike Sullivan, a longtime Naples Botanical Garden volunteer, who reached a milestone of volunteering 12,000 hours in the Garden. He soared to this incredible achievement on the eve of his 12-year anniversary. This is the highest amount of hours any volunteer in Garden history has reached!
On his initial application in February 2010, Mike wrote that he wanted to “help where and when needed.” At the time, he had recently given up golf, and due to a major lung operation, wasn’t allowed to swing a club for 6 – 8 months.
He visited the Garden on December 19, 2009, with his daughter, Jenny. He fell in love that very day. Jenny noticed. “This is your place, I feel it. I know you,” she told him. She was right. He started getting trained right away. Since then, Mike has volunteered for the Natural Areas an average of 12 hours per week.
Mike, who spent 30 years as a school principal, says, “I am contributing to something in life. I am part of something. Even research will indicate that the more you volunteer, the more adjusted you are. Coming to the Garden, I have found that I contribute to the happiness of other humans and my own welfare. Whatever you put out comes back to you, I believe it.”
Mike considers the Garden his home and the people who work here his family.
“Mike shows us all what it means to be dedicated to a place and to the people in it,” says Karen Pattison, Volunteer Services Manager. “His efforts have had a lasting impact on the Garden, which will resonate with those of us who know and love him. He has made a difference in the best possible way a person can, and we will always be grateful.”
Alberta Feeney and Ellen Radomski, fellow Thursday morning volunteers, add, “He is a good and caring friend. Thursday mornings with him at the Garden are never dull. He has brought laughter and joy to us both during this long pandemic. The three of us could not have gotten through these months, or I should say years, without us meeting once a month at the café for lunch, just to catch up and be sure each of us were doing okay. I think I can speak for both myself and Ellen, when I say he is our friend, and we love him.”
The years in the Garden have yielded their fair share of pleasant memories — and coincidences.
Mike has spent a lot of time in Miami and matured as a Bob Marley fan. He went to his concerts for 30 years. One time in the Kapnick Caribbean Garden, Mike happened to run into a couple, who happened to include Bob Marley’s manager and his significant other. They spent an hour talking about Marley and life.
Other special memories are of the Volunteer Appreciation Nights; the one after Hurricane Irma, he was presented with a piece of a pine tree that had been felled, one of many Mike and other volunteers helped cut apart for mulch. Someone put a plaque there, and gave it to Mike when he reached 10,000 hours. That time during Irma clean-up drew a committed group of volunteers. Mike was on-site for two weeks during the Garden’s closure, and the volunteers worked together all day. They were able to have wonderful lunches in Fogg Café, cool off in the air conditioning in the Buehler Auditorium, and that was good for him because he didn’t have air conditioning at home for two weeks. That whole time was special, because it was a project that they overcame together.
Mike volunteers on Mondays and Wednesdays in the Natural Areas and on Thursdays as a Garden Ambassador where he greets guests. He has become good friends with Eric Foht, Director of Natural Resources, who has worked with him nearly every week for the past 12 years.
“Mike is good around plants and people because you have to respect both of those things to work with them,” says Eric. “He is super dedicated. You are not going to find anyone more dedicated than him. So much so that, almost to a fault, he will be out there till the last weed is pulled.”
Eric has also gotten to know Mike through off-site nursery trips. They used to take a Garden truck to Sanibel, Miami, or Homestead, and Mike would help Eric load and unload.
“We started a little tradition where we would stop and get a Cuban sandwich somewhere along the way, Eric says. “It made a fun day and a mission to find a good lunch spot and bring plants to the Garden.”
Sullivan excitedly concludes, “I lived in Miami 29 years; Cuban sandwiches are part of my nature.”
About the Author
Darby Kordonowy is the Content Coordinator for Naples Botanical Garden. Darby loves learning! Her favorite plants are the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) and the Camellia japonica ‘Pink Perfection.’ She is an amateur bird watcher!