Charles “Chuck” Kline

By: Stephanie Shigematsu

Stephanie Shigematsu is the Horticulture Supervisor San Diego Zoo Safari Park at San Diego Zoo Global and she is the…

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Photograph courtesy Grounds Maintenance magazine

Photograph courtesy Grounds Maintenance magazine

Charles “Chuck” Kline
1921-2005

Chuck Kline began his career as horticulturist at SeaWorld in 1973. The site was a salt marsh then, but, with a great deal of effort, and much trial and error, he turned it into the outstanding garden it is today. I vividly recall the moment I met Chuck, twenty-five years ago at SeaWorld. With hat in hand, he met me in the lobby of the Human Resources Department. “I hear you’d like to work in the landscape department. Can you start Monday?” I said, “Sure.” It was that simple. Since that fateful day, Chuck has been my boss, my mentor, my supporter, my employee, and, best of all, my friend.

With his horticulture staff, Chuck was master—exacting without being pushy—showing us how to plant a flower bed without ever setting down our trowel, or how to properly prune a hydrangea, or instructing us on which plants would need sharp drainage to thrive. Chuck would mentor us with witty and entertaining tales. We heard stories about the New York Botanic Garden, while learning about how signs needed to be placed just so; about his days at Cal Poly Pomona, spraying orchards with pesticides, without a care in the world (the term “personal protective equipment” had not been invented yet); and, while we sowed seeds together, about the interesting characters he had worked with at the University of California Botanic Garden at Berkeley as a plant propagator.

Chuck spoke to us about the profession of horticulture, emphasizing that it represented a worldwide community (of which he was a vital part); that it was multi-faceted and full of wonderful plants, along with interesting and quirky people (like Chuck); and a career to be proud of (as he was). Before Chuck formally retired in ‘86, Susan Anderson became director of landscaping, holding that position until 1993. She said it best: “[Chuck] was able to emphasize and demonstrate horticulture and gardening as a profession—not just a job. He got some of that understanding of himself and of the profession when he worked at NYBG, and carried that with him throughout his career. I learned from him to love plants and to be curious about their history, origins, and family connections. I learned that landscaping was a wonderful blend of art and science, and that you can continue learning [about plants] forever.” Inspired by Chuck, it is these shared sentiments that we both tried to pass on to our fellow employees at SeaWorld.

In 1991, it was our great honor to welcome Chuck back to SeaWorld as a part-time employee. He worked a few hours a week maintaining our plant labels and assisting with accession record duties. He was always available to give a tour or to identify a mystery plant; if he couldn’t, he brought it to the next San Diego Horticultural Society meeting where someone surely could. Chuck was one of the society’s earliest members, was a regular contributor to the monthly plant forum, and was honored as the society’s first Horticulturist of the Year in 1996. He contributed numerous articles to Pacific Horticulture and other journals. He was still a SeaWorld employee on the day he died. Neither of us ever wanted to cut that tie; we never needed to.

Horticulture was a field that allowed Chuck to share himself with others, to mend his spirit and express his art. Marveling at a gorgeous arrangement of potted ferns he had set at his front door, I commented on how lovely and artistic it looked. He gave me his knowing smile and quipped, “It’s art, it’s all about art.”

Chuck was not so much a “tree hugger” as he was someone who had hugged a tree in response to his thoughtful appreciation of nature. Plants people, like me, who have been supported, cajoled, and charmed by all he represented, have had a deep appreciation for Chuck. He enriched all our lives and we will miss him greatly.

Stephanie Shigematsu
director of landscaping
Seaworld, San Diego