In Memory of Frank Vasek, the First Director of the UCR Botanic Gardens

By Cheri Vasek, Cindy Engel, and Maxine Vasek |

The first director of the University of California, Riverside Botanic Gardens, Frank C. Vasek, passed away in Davis, California on January 11, 2022, at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Maxine, daughters Cheri Vasek and Cindy Engel, son-in-law Tom Engel, and grandchildren Clara and Katie Engel.

Frank was born in Cleveland, Ohio on May 9, 1927. Following high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps, after which he attended the University of Ohio, graduating in 1950. Frank attended graduate school at UCLA, pursuing a Ph.D. in Botany with research emphasis in genetics and taxonomy. There he met fellow UCLA graduate student Maxine McClelen, who was studying plant anatomy. They were married in August of 1954. Frank and Maxine shared a love of plants, and together they created beautifully landscaped yards with flourishing native and drought tolerant species at their homes in Riverside, Valley Center, and Davis. 

Frank earned his Ph.D. in Botany at UCLA in 1955, having joined the faculty at the new UCR campus in the previous year. Soon after Frank’s arrival he was appointed to play a key founding role in establishing the Herbarium and the new botanic garden on the young UCR campus. As the Botanic Gardens' first director, serving until 1967, Frank developed a budget, designed a plan emphasizing California native plants and select exotic plants, and made many physical improvements including an irrigation system, small lathhouse, perimeter fences, and roads.  Concurrently, he immediately set out to create from scratch an herbarium to use for research and teaching purposes.  From a modest beginning relying mostly on donations of field collections from his students’ coursework, Frank championed the preservation and expansion of this priceless resource. The irreplaceable library of plant specimens at UCR currently boasts more than 273,000 specimens sourced mostly from California and throughout the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Some of these specimens are now extinct in the wild.

Frank conducted research in ecology and systematics over a long and productive career. He also prioritized the sharing of knowledge, in both formal and informal settings.  Teaching and mentoring students was a particularly meaningful aspect of his academic career.

One of Frank’s most significant projects was discovering the desert creosote “King Clone” as one of the oldest living organisms on earth. Using radiocarbon dating, Frank determined King Clone’s age to be 11,700 years. He further corroborated this with field observations of growth rates in the creosote clonal rings.

Upon retiring from UCR after a 34-year career, Frank and Maxine moved to a 3-acre property in Valley Center, California, where they revitalized a fruit orchard and developed a mini botanic garden in their front yard. When they moved to Davis in 2000, they again pursued their passion for gardens, creating a beautiful garden in their suburban lot. Frank and Maxine moved to the University Retirement Community in Davis in 2013 and even there, Frank surreptitiously developed a lively garden in what had once been a neglected area and created an identification guide for the trees and shrubs on the grounds.

Frank was humble, patient, devoted, kind, and always optimistic, attributes that contributed to making him a good teacher. One key to his optimism was his capacity to reflect thoughtfully and with gratitude; it was the lens through which he saw the world. Throughout his life, he exemplified a commitment to being present and engaged in the issue at hand to create positive outcomes. He always said that he never shied away from tackling complicated projects. The UCR Botanic Gardens owes a huge debt of gratitude to the dedication, creativity, and passion of Frank Vasek, its founding Director.

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