Woman's Vision Pushes Plan for Gardens in Remembrance of 9/11 Victims
By Joel M. Lerner Saturday, April 10, 2004; Page F05

Sue Casey will always remember the moment, 7:19 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2001, when she returned to her car from a church service. She had been praying for a way to comfort those touched by the terrorist attacks 15 days earlier.

Like all of us, Casey watched in horror as the terrible events unfolded on television. "I kept thinking of the families, the women who had lost their husbands, the children who lost their parents," she said.

Casey, a receptionist for 14 years at a law firm in Portland, Ore., is a woman who has used to getting things done. When she looked up from her car and saw a yellow rose growing along the curb, she had her answer: "We'll give them a rose garden."

She got into her car to drive home, overwhelmed by her idea. "I was reaching for the ignition and the thought came to me -- 'Remember Me.' " And so the idea for Remember Me Rose Gardens was born. There would be three gardens, one for each site where the planes hit, in New York, the Pentagon and Somerset County, Pa. Each garden would have a rose for every victim, 2,970 roses per garden.

At first the name seemed "corny," and the idea hardly possible, Casey said. "I knew I had the skills and the organization, but did I have the self-confidence to make it a reality?"

The more she thought about it, the more appealing it became. Remember Me would be everyone, from the victims and their families, to the survivors, to the police and firefighters who raced to help, to the operators who took the 911 calls, to the people who watched on television and felt their hearts break. "Everyone has a story," Casey said.

She prepared by clearing out a room in her house for an office and bought an eight-pocket organizer, now supplemented by 12 rolling file drawers. Casey talked to the mayor of Portland, who was encouraging, and she started to research, write letters and make calls.

"It led to the right people, and things happened," she said.

A major part of her success has been in establishing relationships with the organizations already involved in Sept. 11 tributes and memorials. The latest partnerships are with September's Mission in New York, and the Flight 93 Task Force in Pennsylvania. The New York Restoration Project, which was founded by singer and actress Bette Midler to restore and maintain parks and natural areas in the city, has also offered assistance. In Washington, Remember Me staff members are talking with D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service.

April is National Gardening Month, and the National Gardening Association has adopted Remember Me as a "Green Group," offering encouragement and support. Eventually, Casey expects corporations and other organizations to come on board.

Remember Me would like the garden in New York to be on the World Trade Center site. The Pennsylvania task force is assembling a plot of 1,500 acres, and the garden there will be on or next to the site. To commemorate the Pentagon attack, Casey would like a public location in Washington. Proceeds from the sale of plants to the public will help fund and maintain the gardens. The organization hopes the White House will accept plants for its Rose Garden.

Remember Me Rose Gardens has launched a fundraising effort that will introduce nine new roses over the next few years. These nine are the ones they hope will be planted at the White House. The first introduction was a fiery red hybrid tea rose, appropriately named Firefighter by New York City firefighter Lt. Bob Jackson. Jackson, an avid rose grower, was one of Casey's early recruits to the organization and is now on the board of directors. The lieutenant's Battalion 9 firehouse lost more than a dozen members on Sept. 11.

As Casey's network has expanded, there have been unexpected connections. An article in a newsletter about Remember Me was seen by a woman in New Jersey who was in a support group run by Mary Kay Stratis, whose husband was killed in the 1988 crash of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland.

Stratis has a rose garden with more than 120 roses, which she had planted as a tribute to her husband and as a place of solace for herself and her children. The woman showed her the newsletter and said, "Whoever put in your rose garden should get in touch with this [Remember Me] woman."

That's how Casey met Michael Mitchell, whose business, Rose Gardens by Michael, designs, plants and maintains private rose gardens in northern New Jersey. Mitchell met firefighter Bob Jackson and recommended that Casey get in touch with him. "He's already on the board," Casey replied. Mitchell is now East Coast representative for Remember Me Rose Gardens.

As Remember Me's rose man, Mitchell will oversee planting and maintenance of all three gardens. The organization intends each garden to have its own staff, including volunteers. Roses, Mitchell admits, are not the most trouble-free of flowers. "The ones you're going to grow in a garden like this, the hybrid teas and floribundas, the beautiful, long-stemmed roses, are going to need pretty much daily maintenance," he said.

Each garden will have its own design, and Remember Me is establishing test gardens where roses will be put through their paces to see if they're suitable for the site. Each location offers its own challenge. The Flight 93 site, for instance, is in an area of strip mining, and Mitchell foresees the need for a lot of heavy site preparation. This does not mean that the gardens will be fragile, protected, keep-out spaces.

"These gardens are going to be for the people," Mitchell said. "They're going to have to be designed so people can walk through freely and easily."

Every garden "is going to be a place where people from everywhere can come and get a little solace. This is a living memorial," he said.

Casey envisions the gardens as places where family members can visit and remember their loved ones. No family member will ever leave a garden without roses in hand. If the daughter of a Sept. 11 victim is getting married, she can have flowers from the garden for the ceremony. The gardens are "meant to make people feel good," Casey said.

Although Remember Me Rose Gardens has a lot of support, and anticipates more, in some ways this has been a solo effort. Almost all the money spent so far has been Casey's. She's used credit cards, retirement funds, a home refinance, tax refunds, frequent-flier miles and overtime pay. But she claims little credit. "To me, this wasn't my idea; this was a gift that was entrusted to me to bring to fruition," she said.

The Firefighter rose is being sold through Edmunds' Roses of Portland at www.edmundsroses.com; however, the nursery's stock of the hybrid is sold out until new plants are grown.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company