I first met Margaret when she was state president of the Wisconsin Garden Club Association, and they were having their state conference in Eau Claire. I was working on my Master’s Degree at UW-Eau Claire in biology (botany) and had recently been hired as the first Eau Claire County Horticulturalist for UW-Extension. I had a broad plant science background but with how broad and varied the horticulture field can be, I had a lot to learn for this part time job in addition to my university work. I was asked to speak to the Garden Club members, and they wanted me to talk about prairie restoration. I had never worked to restore a prairie before so I went to the stores of knowledge of UW-Extension and was provided a script and some slides to give a presentation about how to start restoring an old prairie. I learned as much through the presentation as the audience, and met Margaret at the end of the presentation. I must not have made much of an impression on her because in later years I asked if she remembered this encounter and she said she did not. I guess that is a good thing – because if I had really bombed the presentation she would have remembered it I am sure.
When I completed my Master’s degree I was hired as the Polk County 4-H Youth Development Agent. My work beyond the county 4-H program soon became focused on the State 4-H Plant Science Subprogram Committee. Volunteers and educators worked on these program committees together, and Margaret joined the team the same year I did, 1990. Back then we had specialists in many areas to provide support and to help direct programming. Our role as committee members were to provide a field perspective to program directions, review curriculum, and assist where needed. Margaret soon became known as the go-to lady with 4-H plant science project and judging questions.
As years went by, we lost our specialist and more and more work fell to the few of us left on the committee. Margaret was still the judging go-to person, and helped put on several workshops to train others in our region on judging. She always made learning a fun event with hands-on resources to share. She also led up the judging contest part of our state contest, which now, without specialist direction, I was in charge of. None of this could have happened without the great volunteers like Margaret.
In the early to mid-1990’s, Margaret would drive to Chippewa Falls and leave her car at a friend’s house, and I would meet her and pick her up to car pool for plant science meetings and events. As the years went on I just stopped at her farm and picked her up. I always enjoyed the stops at her house. She would have orchids and violets blooming just inside the door year around it seemed. I truly enjoyed those long car rides with Margaret. She would often bring cookies or sweet bread, and always coffee. She loved her coffee. We talked about many things on those trips. I learned a lot about her life, the early years, her kids, and I learned a lot about her grandkids, she was always the proud grandma. We talked about life, religion, and even politics. Never did we have a disagreement about anything, just a respectful conversation. I think if she disagreed she just kept that to herself and we would go on to another topic. Sometimes on the return trips, we would both be exhausted from the day, and she would sit quietly and look at the view. Silence with Margaret was never awkward. She was fun to be around and we grew to become great friend friends.
When we first started using Hwy 29 on our way to Hancock Research Station, it was not four lanes for a good part of the way. When it finished and she would often say she never thought she would see this highway project completed. I was always glad she did. The farms along Hwy 29 often brought up discussions centered on farming. She loved old barns and she loved cow. Quite often the farm land of the central part of the state would bring up a story about some Dutch farmers she and her husband John had known or things she had done in past years. She often talked about her child hood, growing up outside of Roberts, Wis. and what it was like to be a girl back then. She was one of the first girls in 4-H to take a cow to the St. Croix County Fair. One of my favorite stories she told was about the summer it was so hot that the only way they could sleep at night and get some sort of cool air was to go outside and sleep on the bare ground!
Most of her family I didn’t know, but I grew to learn about her children and their families. I learned a bit about Margaret as a mother too. She told me about catching one of her sons smoking and not making a big deal about it other than to let him know she did not approve. If memory serves me right that eventually took care of the smoking.
She would tell me stories about being a young wife, living with her husband’s parents on the farm and what it was like to farm back then without the many modern conveniences we take for granted today. She was proud of the work that had gone into making the farm she loved what it has become. She was especially proud of the fact that it was still a family owned and operated farm. It truly impressed her with how the farm had grown and how farming had changed.
Margaret knew her gardening, and I was an avid learner. We would walk about her yard and the gardens outside her house and talk about the plants and trees. She often would give me plants, wayward tree seedlings, and seeds for my home. Most of the wayward trees never lived but I still have “poppies” (pink ones) popping up in my perennial bed whose original seed came from Margaret’s grandmother. She also gave me two house plants which still flourish today, a fussy leaf fern and an “eye lash” begonia. That begonia we used many times for cuttings and also for making judging classes.
Margaret was one of the favorite flower judges at many of the county fairs in our region. When she would come to Polk County, if time would allow, I would stop to watch her teach each child as they brought their flowers and plants to her. I would hear her asking the kid’s questions about their exhibit, what they had learned, and what they might do differently next time, all while sharing her plant wisdom along the way. Always the teacher, we all learned a lot about judging flowers and house plants through listening to Margaret Doornink.
Margaret was creative and always coming up with new ideas. When Farm Technology Days were near our side of the state, she would work on a small committee to come up with hands-on plant science activities for kids to do as part of our display in the Youth Tent. We created tree judging classes, seed identification activities, invisible ink letter stations, the list of activities goes on and on and Margaret’s enthusiasm helped us always to try something new. She also authored a judging pocket handbook to help youth and new judges prepare. I am sure the list I am writing about today really only tops the surface of the contributions she made to 4-H plant sciences.
I could tell as the years went by the trips I was taking her on were becoming harder for her even though she always wanted to go. The long days at Farm Technology Days and the overnights at the State 4-H Plant Science Day were becoming more of a challenge as time went on and I knew that soon she would not be able handle this, I just didn’t want it to end. She told me in the fall of 2008 that she was not re-enrolling as a 4-H Leader, after 60 years of volunteering. What a tremendous gift she had given to St. Croix County and the state of Wisconsin through her 4-H work. I knew our many fun trips and all the opportunities I had had for learning were coming to a close. Thank you Margaret Doornink for being my friend and the opportunity I had to learn from you. Thank you for being such a kind and gentle person who taught us all so much and who’s work still goes on today in the Wisconsin 4-H Plant Science program.