© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Margaret Sandhagen Whitmire obituary: Benefactor for nature reserve; gardener extraordinaire

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2010 - Margaret Whitmire didn't merely tiptoe through the tulips; she chose to, metaphorically, run full speed through the wildflowers. Mrs. Whitmire, whose love of wildflowers spurred the establishment of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve, died Dec, 12 at Missouri Baptist Hospital from complications of a recent illness.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Dec. 18, at the First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood on what would have been Mrs. Whitmire's 92nd birthday.

A Big Birthday Bouquet

In 1987, Blanton Whitmire donated the five-acre garden in his wife's honor. It was a surprise birthday gift (much better, Mrs. Whitmire said at the time, than the last surprise gift she received: a puppy).

The birthday present had been a big surprise to Shaw Nature Reserve Director John Behrer, too.

"When Blanton approached me, I thought he wanted to donate a bench or perhaps a tree tag," Behrer said.

The popular garden, five years in the making and designed to teach everyday people about gardening techniques for their own yards, includes more than 800 species of native plants, mostly from Missouri habitats, that bloom abundantly from early spring through the fall of each year.

"I've always loved to garden," Mrs. Whitmire told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year. "It's always been flowers, never vegetables."

Over the years, the Whitmires often strolled through "their" garden, admiring the foliage and blending in with the garden's many visitors. (In recent months, they had availed themselves of a golf cart to traverse the expansive area.) But Behrer said this was no ordinary couple.

"The Whitmires have put (Shaw) on the map as a leader in native plant horticulture," Behrer said. "They awakened a lot of people to the nature reserve and enabled us to become a leading source for information and training regarding native plants in gardens and landscaping.

"Peg's love for wildflowers has led to a very extensive outreach in the wildflower movement and the garden is now the foundation; it's our outdoor classroom and we've seen interest grow and grow."

In 2004, Mrs. Whitmire and her husband received the Missouri Botanical Garden's Greensfelder Award for their support.

Putting Down Roots

Mrs. Whitmire inherited the affinity for gardening from her father, Harry Sandhagen, a CPA, who changed jobs and locales frequently, but always planted a garden wherever he lived.

Mrs. Whitmire's son, Richard, said his mother would say that she liked the opportunity to grow things with roots because of her family's nomadic, depression-era life when she was a child.

Margaret Sandhagen was born in Chicago on Dec. 18, 1918. Her widely-traveled father finally settled the family in St. Louis when "Peg" was 11. She graduated from University City High School in 1937 and was accepted into Washington University, but hard economic times prevented her from attending. Nevertheless, Mrs. Whitmire, who was known for her curiosity, took college courses throughout her life.

During World War II, while working as a secretary at Ralston Purina in St. Louis, Mrs. Whitmire met her future husband, Blanton Whitmire. They married in New York City while Blanton was briefly stateside shortly before being shipped overseas with the U.S. Army.

Blanton Whitmire later owned Whitmire Research Laboratories, the company begun by his older brother. The company made insecticides for hospitals, restaurants and homes.

The couple spent the past 56 years in Kirkwood, surrounded by Mrs. Whitmire's home garden of flowers and blooming trees, many in her favorite color of pink. In recent years, she developed a fascination with orchids and maintained an elaborate greenhouse in her home.

Mary Ott and her husband F. Thomas Ott were neighbors in adjacent Glendale, where the Whitmires also once lived, and shared Mrs. Whitmire's love of wildflowers. The two admired her spirit.

"Peg was the most thoughtful, generous person I've ever known," said Mary Ott. "She was very low key, very generous and very modest."

Planting a Legacy

Mrs. Whitmire's interest in plants extended far beyond her home garden and the garden at Shaw. Her impact was felt throughout St. Louis neighborhoods through her support of Gateway Greening (formerly Gateway to Gardening), a nonprofit organization that helps to reclaim city neighborhoods by maintaining about 150 urban gardens.

"Peg was a caring gardener who understood implicitly the role of growing plants as a way of changing the quality of life," said Gwenne Hayes-Stewart, executive director of Gateway Greening. "She was a volunteer, ambassador and a major contributor. Her one-on-one approach also gave us new board members, new donors and new friends.

"She was the most gentle and genteel promoter of Gateway Greening," Hayes-Stewart added. "She would buttonhole everyone around her to let them know about her work in community gardening and urban farming. She was irresistibly persistent."

A Partner in Charity

Mrs. Whitmire partnered with her husband on numerous philanthropic projects, including endowed professorships in environmental sciences and entomology in his home state of North Carolina and the Sandhagen Fund at St. Louis Community College, which supports students in need.

Mrs. Whitmire, who was said to have known the name of every dog and cat in the neighborhood, was also a Meals on Wheels driver for more than a decade and volunteered extensively at Children's Hospital.

In 2005, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Western Carolina University. In October 2010, Kirkwood Mayor Art McDonnell issued a proclamation honoring the Whitmires on their 67th wedding anniversary.

During the past year, Richard Whitmire said his mother often declared, "I'm just so grateful for my life."

Mrs. Whitmire was preceded in death by her parents, Harry Sandhagen and Ethel Kerns Sandhagen, and a brother, Harry Sandhagen.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Whitmire is survived by her two children, Catherine Whitmire (Tom Ewell), of Whidbey Island, Wash., and Richard Whitmire (Robin Gradison) of Arlington, Va., and three grandchildren, Zachary Hunter of Boston, Morgan Whitmire Kennedy of Cairo, Egypt, and Tyler Whitmire of Portland, Ore.

A memorial service will be at 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 18, at the First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 East Adams Ave. It is the church where she had served as a deacon, an elder, a food pantry volunteer, a Sunday school teacher and room mother.

In lieu of flowers for the woman who loved them, donations may be made to Gateway Greening, 2211 Washington Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63103-1521, or the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, P.O. Box 38, Gray Summit, Mo. 63039.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.