CHAUTAUQUA – Ryan Mary Kiblin was the true embodiment of a free spirit.
She loved butterflies, tie dye and the color purple. She savored trips to the botanical gardens in Buffalo, loved animals of all kinds, and held a fascination for anything and everything green.
Friends say they could point to anything in nature – tree, flower, weed – and Ryan could name it and discuss it at length.
“She was just amazing,” said Hannah Akin, who worked for Ryan on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution for the past four summers. “She just had an appreciation and knowledge of everything that had to do with gardening.”
The 33-year-old supervisor of grounds, gardens and landscaping at Chautauqua Institution and her infant daughter Emma Lee passed away July 13 after a very brief illness at Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
Their deaths have stunned and saddened her family and friends as well as the community at Chautauqua where she enjoyed a legion of fans.
While the community tries to make sense of the tragedy, co-workers point to the beautiful and tangible gift she left behind – the many gardens and memorable plantings that line the streets and plazas on the grounds of the institution.
“The first thing everyone sees when they get to the grounds are eight big barrels of flowers that hang along the main road,” Akin explained. “Everyone loves them. She put all the designs together.”
Flowers spilled from those baskets Saturday under a grey and rain-streaked sky as friends and family gathered at the Hall of Philosophy to celebrate Ryan’s life.
As gatherers – huddled beneath umbrellas – walked to the hall, Ryan’s landscaping projects illustrated the story of her career along the paths and streets where she had spent summer days planting flowers and plucking weeds.
“It is appropriate,” said Robert Franklin, pastor of Chautauqua Institution, “that we gather here, huddled together, keeping warm and sheltered from the rain to remember her.”
The young gardener’s resume outlines the journey of an adventurous spirit with a green thumb. This summer marked Ryan’s 13th year as an employee at Chautauqua Institution, 11 of which she spent as a supervisor. She oversaw a staff of 46 workers, designed and coordinated garden beds and landscaping projects, and was in charge of offseason cleanup. She also gave lectures and presentations on various environmental topics, and was a member of The Bird, Tree and Garden Club.
She was named as one of “Five Extraordinary Women Who Keep Chautauqua Running” by the Chautauquan Daily in 2013.
But according to friends, Ryan had another resume – a more personal one that portrayed a magnanimous personality, a contagious smile and a love of life.
“All you had to do was mention her name and people would just light up,” said one fan, who was there to coordinate the memorial service.
Thomas Becker, Chautauqua Institution president, said the rain was an apt description of how everyone felt, but he was eager to shine the light on Ryan’s talents.
“She didn’t just create space,” Becker explained. “She made beautiful designs that were explicitly about the present and the future. It was immediate beauty with the promise of future beauty.”
Becker also addressed her leadership skills, explaining that “to work with or for Ryan was to commit to a standard of excellence.”
He also said he was mourning the chance to watch the young woman continue to develop as a leader inside the organization.
“She was committed to the purposes of this place,” Becker explained.
Doug Conroe, director of operations at Chautauqua, described his sense of loss: “Tomorrow now presents a void for all of us … that we’re struggling to overcome. But the beauty of her creations has already started to fill that void.”
Conroe also described Ryan’s delight about becoming a mother. “In my heart I knew she would be a fine mother,” he said.
“Ryan was a gardener,” added Marjorie Buxbaum, president of The Bird, Tree and Garden Club. “She was our gardener. She will continue to bless us with her creations every day.”
A slideshow of Ryan’s life played against the backdrop of a steady rain at the end of the service, showing pictures of the Jamestown resident in fields of flowers and along the leafy pathways of Chautauqua or posing with friends at parties and family gatherings.
When the service ended, a few people went and stood quietly amongst the flora and fauna of her last project – a rain garden behind Norton Hall.
Four hundred feet long, the ambitious garden boasts brick walkways that wind along more than a thousand perennials, hundreds of shrubs and a crushed limestone nature trail. The garden is designed to help the sustainability of Chautauqua Lake as it filters out excess nitrogen and phosphorous.
The words of President Becker echoed along the meandering walkway.
“For generations to come, Ryan’s name will resound through this community,” he said. “I hope you will hear it … I know I will listen for it.”