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Botanical garden director Frank Telewski retires after 28 years

September 30, 2021
<p>When Frank Telewski started at MSU campus in the 90s, he made an effort to make sure that this abundance of unique trees that he was photographed in on Sept. 28, 2021 were to remain on campus and not be replaced with buildings. Over 20 years later and the trees still are present in the Beal Arboretum. </p>

When Frank Telewski started at MSU campus in the 90s, he made an effort to make sure that this abundance of unique trees that he was photographed in on Sept. 28, 2021 were to remain on campus and not be replaced with buildings. Over 20 years later and the trees still are present in the Beal Arboretum.

Growing up alongside his grandmother’s garden, Frank Telewski, director of W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and plant biology professor discovered his fascination for botany and trees at an early age in his northern New Jersey home.

At the age of seven, Telewski took on the role of tending to the plentiful-filled vegetable garden that was passed on to him.

“This is something, a passion my entire life, something I’ve always wanted to do,” Telewski said. “My passion about science, understanding how things put together and where things occur, what plants occur.”

Prior to arriving at MSU in 1993, Telewski went through many years of schooling in botany and worked at other universities as well. However, Telewski knew his passion for plant biology was striving for something bigger.

“I really wanted to get back into academia,” Telewski said. “I love working with students and having the opportunity to teach as well as manage a garden and still conduct research. This looked like the perfect opportunity.”

No day is the same for Telewski — some days he’s out on campus reviewing the health of campus trees or tracking their species, while other days he’s in the office tackling down paperwork or emails.

“I could be involved with teaching or leading a tour down in the garden, working with my staff on an educational program … updating policies for the gardens, development, hopefully, have the opportunity to talk to a future donor about supporting the garden,” Telewski said.

Telewski has been at MSU since 1993, and will be retiring this October.

Telewski’s greatest accomplishments

In 2014, Telewski noticed that a large number of trees on campus were being cut down for various reasons through disease or new construction sites. He then traveled to Scotland for a botanical gardens conference and experienced an exhibit with woodworkers that were creating products from historic trees’ wood from Great Britain. 

Taking inspiration from the conference, Telewski decided to partner with Paul Swartz, MSU’s retired campus arborist, to start up MSU Shadows — a sustainable wood recovery initiative from trees on MSU’s campus.

“The purpose of that is to raise money to A. support the program — so the program can be sustainable — but also to provide students with an educational opportunity so students can actually work with the MSU Shadows program and learn about urban forestry and urban wood reutilization,” Telewski said.

MSU Shadows products are sold at the MSU Surplus Store. Recycled benches from the program are located north of the Student Union and in the Natural Resources Building.

Telewski also continued the long-lived Beal Seed Experiment — originally started by MSU Botanist William J. Beal. First learning of the experiment as a graduate student in 1980, Telewski felt honored to participate in the projected 222-year long experiment.

Initially, Telewski worked as an associate with Professor Jan Zeevaart in 2000 to excavate one of the bottles that Beal buried in 1879. After Zeevaart died, Telewski was deemed the leader of the Beal Seed Experiment. 

In 2017, Telewski decided to expand the team and hired David Lowry, associate professor of plant biology, in worry of Telewski being the only individual with all the information regarding the experiment.

“Not more than about two months later I had a mild stroke, and if it had been worse than that he would’ve been all alone on the experiment again,” Telewski said.

After Telewski recovered, he and Lowry decided to expand the team even further and recruited Marjorie Weber, Lars Brudvig and Margaret Fleming that fall.

Taking inspiration from Beal’s original work, Telewski and the team is currently arranging a “Beal 2.0 Experiment” to gather information regarding seed germination from smoke exposure.

An advocate for the trees

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Telewski reflects on his proudest moments at MSU as being nicknamed “The Lorax” by his graduate students. 

When the oak trees at the west side of the Wharton Center or the woodlock of trees between Campbell Mary Mayo Hall were planned to be cut down, Telewski successfully convinced administration to prevent the operation from initiating.

Throughout each occurrence, Telewski stood between administration and the trees to preserve the long history of MSU’s scenery — similar to Beal’s actions from his time at MSU.

“I feel that we kind of are a kindred spirit and that I would’ve loved to have met him,” Telewski said. “I think we could’ve been good colleagues and good friends because he has a quote which I found which I absolutely love, … ‘Talk as you please, only plant trees, or let them grow as nature sows the seed.’”

In just under 30 years, Telewski transformed the “Campus Park and Planning” department from three employees to now its independent department as a staff of six. 

“We can now start moving further into the future expanding our outreach, our teaching and our research utilizations, our service to the University community,” Telewski said. “I think the garden has a very bright future, and I’m very proud to have helped achieve that.”

Thankful for the past, looking into the future

For now, Telewski looks forward to spending time in his and his wife’s vegetable and flower garden while also tending to his 7-acre backyard filled with a mini forest that he planted himself.

Although he will be retiring, Telewski still wants to attend international conferences like Plantbio Mechanics and Wind and Trees to continue to share his love for plant biology.

Telewski plans to continue to pursue his hobbies including model railroading and his interest in the logging and timber industry. In 2005, Telewski wrote a book titled “Logging Railroads of Weyerhaeuser’s Vail and Mcdonald Operation” with Scott Barrett and he wishes to continue writing.

“One of the things I’d like to try to do is write a book about the history of the Beal Garden and bring it up to date and the campus arboretum,” Telewski said. “There’s a lot of interesting things I still want to do, and I look forward to having time to do them.”

From starting his fruitful job in 1993, Telewski is thankful to have continued Beal’s legacy through research, teaching and leading MSU’s campus arboretum and the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden.

“I’ve had the opportunity to really explore myself and become a better person and become a successful person to actually do something meaningful and contribute, and I don’t think anybody could ask for more from life,” Telewski said. “I’m grateful to the Spartan Nation, I’m grateful to the University for believing in me and giving me a chance here.”


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