More than half a century ago, Ragnar Moen hauled five skinny shumard oak saplings from a nursery in Michigan to the campus of Elmhurst College in the back of his station wagon.
Moen, who had just been hired as the groundskeeper of the College’s newly founded arboretum, planted one of the oaks just north of Memorial Hall.
The sapling was the first of hundreds of trees and shrubs Moen would plant in his 34 years tending the campus grounds. His work helped transform the campus into a gorgeously varied and beloved living museum of trees.
Moen, often called the foster father of Elmhurst’s campus arboretum, died of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, October 27 at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. He was 80.
Today, more than 800 trees and shrubs representing some 600 species and cultivars grace Elmhurst’s campus. “Ragnar must have planted half of those trees himself,” said Bruce Mather, the College’s executive director of facilities management. Moen nursed dawn redwoods from seedlings, wrestled a transplanted tulip tree into place with the help of an antique farm tractor, tended to a struggling sweetgum in the campus nursery for five years before giving the tree its place along the campus walks.
Now, on brilliant spring days, classes move outside to meet under budding crabapples he planted. In the fall, old friends meet on paths carpeted by crimson maple leaves. The arboretum campus has become a destination for plant lovers and a delight for students and their parents.
But when Moen came to Elmhurst in 1966, the College’s campus looked tired. Many of the grand old trees that had given the town its name were diseased and dying. A local landscape architect named Herbert Licht convinced the College leadership to address the problem by undertaking an ambitious planting program and making the campus an arboretum, offering a more diverse and exotic display of plant life.
Moen took the lead in implementing the plan. The shumard oak he planted in his first year at the College took root and grew. Decades later, a plaque rests in its shade. It reads: “Planted by Ragnar Moen in 1966. Ragnar, with his knowledge and 34 years developing and beautifying the grounds and expanding the plant collection, made this fine campus what it is today.” The plaque was placed there by Herbert Licht.
“Ragnar realized the importance of diversity in the landscape,” said Paul Hack, the College’s groundskeeper. “He was a visionary who developed the College’s landscape into what we see today. His foresight allows those of us walking the campus today to enjoy a variety of unique and beautiful trees.”
When Moen came to the United States from his native Norway in 1961, he had no experience as a plantsman. Relatives helped him land a job with a Glenview landscaping contractor. Learning on the job, he became a foreman in less than a year.
In his first years on the job at Elmhurst he tended the grounds singlehanded. His responsibilities did not end with the campus plant life. In the whiteout winter of 1979, he spent so much time on snow removal that he set up a cot in the basement of the Union and rose in the middle of the night to plow again.
Mather recalled often encountering Moen at the end of a long workday, walking the campus. “It wasn’t so much that he was inspecting the trees,” Mather said. “It was more like he was visiting with old friends. He really cared for those trees.”
Moen could walk the campus and tell stories about each of the trees he had planted. East of Old Main is the weeping European beech that Moen called his personal favorite. Its branches tend groundward, as if weighted down by some great worry. “It’s such a character,” he told the College’s Prospect magazine in 2004. “I don’t think so much of the trees that stand straight up. Give me a little character in a tree.”
Across campus, north of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, is a place that meant even more to Moen. In a small garden bounded by hedges stands a Norway maple planted in memory of Moen’s son Haakon. Born in Norway, Haakon came to the United States with his family when he was a small boy. As a young man, he worked on his father’s grounds. He died in a car accident in 1985. A plaque reads: “In loving memory of Haakon Moen, 1959-1985. Remember me with smiles and laughter because that is the way I will remember you.”
As the arboretum flourished, campus regulars would stop to tell Moen how much they liked working or studying in such a leafy setting. They told him about their own favorite Elmhurst trees: the allee of magnolias in front of the Schaible Science Center, the leaning Austrian pine by Memorial Hall, the hawthorn guarding the entrance to the chapel.
In his own modest way, Moen shared that appreciation for the campus landscape he had helped shape. He marveled at the way saplings he had planted had grown to become a treasured part of the life of the College. As he said in an interview in 2004, “This turned out to be an awfully nice campus, didn’t it?”