Stephen & Elizabeth Zoltai Garden
The following speech was provided and delivered by Sandra Langill, the daughter of Stephen and Elizabeth Zoltai, which the Zoltai Garden is named in honor of.
Thank you for coming out to learn more about the beautiful University of Alberta Botanic
Garden on this glorious Sunday morning.
My name is Sandra Langill, daughter of Stephen and Elizabeth Zoltai, the two people after whom this garden is named. My father, Stephen Zoltai, was a northern soils expert who worked for the Government of Canada.
As a youth in his native land of Hungary, Stephen was an avid Boy Scout and later became a Scout leader. He always loved the outdoors. World War II came along and Stephen and his family’s lives were changed in every possible way.His father became an officer in the Hungarian army and the family was on the move. Stephen’s elder brother and only sibling, Tibor, also joined the army. Teenaged Stephen and his mother were left on their own trying to make it without the older men in their family and Stephen had to grow up quickly. As the war progressed, Tibor ended up getting captured and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp. To make a long, terrible story short, Tibor survived his horrendous ordeal and was eventually miraculously reunited with his family. The family was forced to escape Hungary, and had to wander war ravaged Europe seeking refuge. Eventually they made their way to southern France where teenaged Stephen and his father were able to get work in a cement factory. They were able to squirrel away enough money to secure passage for the family on a ship. The question they now faced was where would they go? The two ships upon which they could afford passage were going to two very different destinations – one to Argentina and one to Canada. They ended up on the ship to Canada. They knew little about Canada except that there were lots of trees and lots of rocks. The two Zoltai brothers decided that Tibor would study rocks and Stephen would study plants. Once safely in Canada, they both were able to complete their studies and Tibor went on to become a celebrated professor of geology while Stephen rose up in his chosen field to be the foremost scholar on northern vegetation and soils, with a special interest in peatlands, permafrost and wetlands.
Stephen’s career had him away from his home and family for several months every year, especially in the summer. We wouldn’t even hear from Dad for extended weeks at a time. Any phone calls we received from distant remote locations somewhere in northern Canada were fuzzy. I remember one time Dad said that he climbed a telephone pole and somehow tapped into it to place his call to us!
Often, our faithful mom would pack up the house and all five of us kids so that we could spend the summer camping in the middle of nowhere while Dad traipsed the fields of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan collecting data for his studies. It was pretty fun for us, but looking back now, my mom was a heck of a trooper. Can you imagine summers in a canvas tent with three small children, and later a trailer (woohoo!!) with five young kids? Mom was a great help to Dad by caring for house and home. She made the best of all the situations. As our family grew up, Mom was able to accompany Dad for the summer (without us kids) in the very most remote areas above the Arctic Circle for weeks at a time. Dad and his colleagues would be out collecting core samples and examining the terrain while mom remained at the camp, fishing and preparing meals for them all to enjoy. Without Mom’s faithful support over the decades, it would have been very hard to keep our family strong and together.
Stephen’s research in Canada’s Boreal forests with specialization in wetlands, permafrost and peatlands received world renown. His research was one of the first to put forth the theory and proof of global warming. His body of works have been instrumental in many aspects of understanding climate change and its far reaching effects. He developed the Canadian Wetland Classification system that is in world-wide use today. He was very involved in the Mackenzie Delta Valley pipeline studies. He also had the honor of being seconded as the lead environmentalist for the United Nations investigation into the oil spills in the USSR in the 1990s. Most of the areas investigated were in Siberia. Their every movement was closely monitored by the KGB while there.
As the importance of Stephen’s studies and papers gained notoriety, he was invited to many conferences world wide. He would bring mom with him when asked to present his findings at the International Peat and Wetlands Conferences. He presented in Ireland, England, Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Japan to name only some conference locations. While they were in Japan, Mr. Suji, a billionaire fan of my father’s work invited my parents into his home. They stayed friends the rest of their lives.
Dad was also an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta. I have encountered several people just in recent years who were students of his or who are well acquainted with his work. It gives me great joy to know that his work is still being taught today.
One of Dad’s distinguished colleagues was Dr. Dale Vitt, former Director of the then
Devonian Botanic Gardens. I took the chance of contacting Dr. Vitt and he was most gracious to promptly respond to my email. He said that he and Dad got to know each other late in their careers. He went on to say that QUOTE “The neatest thing we did together was finding the extensive zone of melting permafrost across the boreal zone all restricted to bogs. This was the first time this was noticed and Steve and I (with Linda Halsey) published several significant papers on this” end quote. Dr. Vitt went on to say that after my father passed away in December of 1997 from mesothelioma, a type of cancer that was caused by breathing in asbestos fibers from the cement factory in southern France in the late 1940s, Dr. Vitt was Director of the Botanic Gardens and he wanted to honor my father and mother. Also, my mom needed a place to store my father’s books and professional materials. They transferred Dad’s library of works to the Garden in a place where it could be preserved, and the Stephen C. Zoltai Peatland Research Centre was created here. Dr. Vitt then proposed to my mother to commemorate both she and Steve with a garden here. We purposefully chose this spot because of its peaceful location with perennial plant borders and rhododendrons, one of Dad’s favorite plants. We figured that Dad had worked very hard all his life and that this was a calm, peaceful, contemplative area with which to honor him. Mom made several significant donations to the Gardens and there was a small fund set up for maintenance.
One of my favorite anecdotes is when my dad and his colleagues, including one of his students named Derrick Johnston, were dropped off at an utterly remote section in the far northern part of Canada. They had arranged with the pilot to be picked up on a specific date and away flew the pilot. The team carried out their studies. The day for the planned return of the airplane came and went. So did the next day and the next. There was no plane to take them home and to civilization. It was over a week before the plane came back. Apparently, the pilot had contracted a very serious illness and had no back up and no one else knew where the team was! When Derrick asked Stephen why he wasn’t worried, Steve just answered with his shoulders shrugged, “ Well, it happens sometimes.”.
My parents were so very humble and quiet about all of Dad’s achievements that none of the five of us children really knew how very far reaching his studies were. He was the first to notice global warming!! He even received a medal from Queen Elizabeth! We are ever so proud of the contribution our parents have made to this country and to the environmental sciences.
The following story depicts the kind of man Stephen Zoltai was. Dad had been given his grim medical diagnosis of mesothelioma with zero chance of survival in August 1996, but he chose to keep walking the two kilometers to and from work every day as long as he was able. November of that year was bitterly cold with large snowfalls. One day while walking home on a day that was minus 43 with the windchill, Dad slipped and fell while crossing a busy intersection. He managed to get off the road and hopped to the nearest bus bench a good 200 metres away. Instead of trying to wave down a passing vehicle driven by a Good Samaritan, after regaining some semblance of strength, Dad chose to somehow hop the remaining distance home over waist high snowbanks and down a small valley and up the other side to his house. Once home, Mom called me to ask if my husband could maybe take Dad to the hospital, as he seemed to have hurt his ankle. Indeed, he had a broken ankle.
We are so blessed to have this garden dedicated to the memory of my parents and we are so thankful to the Botanic Garden for it. As a family, we would like to encourage anyone to donate to the worthy, beautiful and well managed University of Alberta Botanic Garden – truly a provincial treasure.
On behalf of my family, I’d like to thank you so much for your time and attendance here.
Enjoy the rest of your walk!