Putting the ‘Oak’ — More Than 40,000 of Them — in Oak Hill
Rob Galbraith remembers, as a child in the early 1960s, regularly going to the Rochester, N.Y., home of his great-grandfather, John R. Williams, who had been a pioneering physician in the area.
Most memorable about those visits was seeing the byproduct of Williams’s amateur avocation: botany. In the backyard, there were several hundred nascent oak, elm and maple seedlings. Inside the house, acorns by the dozens were planted in dirt-filled coffee cans propped on window sills and shelves. Scores of embryonic trees germinated within a nursery on the property.
“They were growing everywhere,” Galbraith, now 63, recalled in a recent interview. “All over the place.”
Dr. Williams had been nurturing trees in this manner since the 1920s with one singular goal: transforming the grounds of the nearby Oak Hill Country Club from a barren parcel of overworked farmland into a lush golf course landscaped with towering hardwoods, shrubs and other verdant plants.
Dr. Williams, with other club members who offered assistance, did not stop the forestation crusade until tens of thousands of trees were planted over four decades. He once quipped that he had stopped counting how many new seedlings he had relocated to the club after the first 40,000.
The colossal Oak Hill face-lift worked. By the late 1940s, the club, whose 36 holes were designed by the noted course architect Donald J. Ross, had been acclaimed nationally and hosted its first major golf tournament. As the course’s reputation grew in ensuing decades, three U.S. Opens, the Ryder Cup and multiple other distinguished events came to the flourishing site in western New York. This week, the fourth P.G.A. Championship at Oak Hill is underway.
Dr. Williams’s abiding devotion to the club’s arboriculture is also a blossoming story line this week because a recent renovation of the grounds removed hundreds of aging trees for agronomic, competitive and aesthetic reasons. It has altered the look of some holes and sparked debate, but Dr. Williams’s influence on a landmark 20th century golf course endures in the thousands of magnificent trees that remain — not just adjacent to fairways but adorning the perimeter and social areas of the 355-acre site.
Commonly called the club’s patron saint, Dr. Williams, who frequented the club in work overalls and muddy boots while planting, is the man who put the oak in Oak Hill.
Dr. Williams died in 1965 at the age of 91. Shortly thereafter, during a service at the club in his honor, his granddaughter, Susan R. Williams, listened as a chorus sang a verse of Joyce Kilmer’s renowned poem put to music: “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree …”
Susan R. Williams conjured that remembrance for the foreword of a book prepared for the Williams family many years ago and added another fascinating anecdote to her grandfather’s lore. He zealously scoured the world for acorns from renowned oak trees to plant at Oak Hill.
“Our family vacations frequently included side trips to specific trees in search of acorns for Grandpa,” she wrote. It included getting acorns from England at Sherwood Forest and the Shakespeare oak at Stratford-on-Avon, and from the oaks planted by George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va. And it was not just family members who were recruited for the international harvest.
“When people in the armed services left Rochester and went to various parts of the world, they knew to send back acorns to Dr. Williams,” Galbraith said. “Schoolchildren on vacations did the same thing and brought some back home with them.”
He added: “The community was a lot smaller then, and while I don’t know how he did it, my great-grandfather was very proficient at getting the word out that he was collecting acorns.”
It did not hurt that Dr. Williams was one of Rochester’s most prominent citizens — and with good reason.
Raised in Canada, Dr. Williams’s family arrived in Rochester when he was a teenager. Galbraith, who is the first linear descendant of Dr. Williams to join Oak Hill Country Club, said his great-grandfather became a teacher and later graduated from the University of Michigan’s medical school. As the chief of medicine at a Rochester hospital, Dr. Williams became nationally recognized for his research on blood analysis, and in 1916, he established a laboratory that became a leader in the study of metabolic disorders, chiefly diabetes.
Six years later, Dr. Williams was recognized as the first physician in the United States to administer insulin to a diabetic patient. He also surveyed 7,000 Rochester homes to study the safety of the city’s milk supplies and found dangerous, unsatisfactory refrigeration conditions that would lead to illness. He rewrote refrigeration standards, including those that applied to milk delivery trucks. Some of his guidelines were instituted nationwide.
Coming to the aid of his community seemed to come naturally to Dr. Williams, who was active in many civic endeavors, especially within the city’s museum community. After Oak Hill moved from its original downtown location to the Rochester suburb of Pittsford in 1926, he began to extensively study the botany of trees in hopes of improving the vast but cheerless property where the golf courses would be situated.
Dr. Williams took on the project altruistically, not necessarily for personal benefit.
“What’s most interesting about Dr. Williams is that he wasn’t really a golfer,” said Sal Maiorana, a longtime Rochester sportswriter whose 2013 book painstakingly chronicled Oak Hill’s history. “He joined the club specifically as a social thing. But he became fascinated with trees, put in a tremendous amount of time understanding everything about them and consulted arborists around the world. He knew he could help the club, and the Oak Hill board of directors realized that he was the man for the job.”
But 40,000 trees planted? From a practical standpoint, how?
“It is a lot of trees, but actually I’d always heard it was 50,000,” Galbraith said with a chuckle. “But he lived to be 91 so he did it consistently over a long period of time. And he had people help plant the trees.”
He added: “If you look at everything he accomplished throughout this entire life, he was one of those individuals who would set his mind to things and then just do it.”
Dr. Williams’s affinity for trees led to another permanent contribution to the club’s grounds: a living tribute to noteworthy contributors to golf called the Hill of Fame. Beginning in 1956, Dr. Williams began selecting trees on a rise adjacent to the 13th hole on the club’s East Course that would be affixed with bronze plaques commemorating such golfing luminaries as Ben Hogan, Annika Sorenstam, Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez. The unveiling of each plaque has included a ceremony. To date, 45 people, including amateur golfers and administrators, have been recognized. A tree, Dr. Williams liked to say, was a surviving legacy far superior to a gravestone in a cemetery.
In the early 1990s, a northern red oak seedling grown inside Oak Hill’s nursery was transplanted onto manicured grass between the former Genesee Hospital in Rochester (now a medical facility) and an adjacent parking garage. The tree has since sprouted more than 25 feet, giving shade to a walkway used by health workers and visitors.
The choice of site for the planting of this particular seedling was not accidental. It was once the property of Dr. Williams, where he lived and operated his medical practice and wandered into his backyard with fledgling trees.
Over and over, and over, again.