Fayette County

Marcia Farris, driving force behind the Arboretum and its longtime director, dies

Marcia Farris, shown here at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive in Lexington on July 21, l998.
Marcia Farris, shown here at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive in Lexington on July 21, l998. Staff File Photo

Marcia Griest Farris, 70, the former longtime director of The Arboretum, the State Botanical Garden, died Oct. 26 after a long illness.

Farris was the first full-time director of The Arboretum on Alumni Drive, serving at the helm of the organization for 15 years from 1999 until January 2014. During that time, she transformed the grassy area with a gravel foot path into a thriving botanical garden that attracts 200,000 visitors each year, city and arboretum officials say.

“The Arboretum that you see today would not be what it is today if it was not for the work of Marcia Farris,” said Molly Davis, the current director, who took over after Farris retired.

Farris, a former middle school science teacher, was hired as a part-time director and became its first full-time director.

She oversaw the construction of the Dorotha Smith Oatts Visitor Center, the Kentucky Children’s Garden, various gardens, its first master plan and dozens of other education and outreach programs.

“She had few paid staff,” said Nancy McNally, the current president of Friends of the Arboretum. “She did it through volunteers.”

Davis said it was often Farris and longtime administrative assistant Dayna Baston who planted trees during Farris’ early years at The Arboretum.

Former Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who served for years on The Arboretum advisory board, said Farris frequently shunned the spotlight and refused to take credit for the success of the botanical garden even in her retirement. Friends of the Arboretum were commissioning a plaque to honor Farris before she died. McNally said Farris reluctantly agreed “as long as it wasn’t in the way.”

Farris heard “no” many times as she sought funding to put The Arboretum on firm financial footing. The Arboretum is a joint project between the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and the city of Lexington.

“She would not give up. But she was always polite,” Gorton said. “I adored her. She was adored by so many people.”

McNally said she often wondered how Farris was able to get so much done. She was the face of the Arboretum and its best ambassador.

“If you walked into the visitor, center she would jump up and come over to talk to you,” McNally said. “And she knew so many people!”

A Catlettsburg native, Farris graduated from Transylvania University and later received a master’s degree in science education at UK. She taught science in middle school for 14 years. She was an avid gardener and a longtime member of Crestwood Christian Church, and she loved to travel. She also served on the board of America in Bloom Lexington.

She is survived by her three children, Johnathan and Thomas Farris, and Mary Browning, two grandsons, and her sister, Karen Griest.

Funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 11 at Crestwood Christian Church. Visitation and a reception will follow.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall