Sherman Gardens director dies at 69

Newport Beach residents and visitors who drive regularly through Corona del Mar may take for granted the trees that decorate East Coast Highway.

King Palms and Hong Kong orchids were planted in the area in part because of the efforts of long-time community member Charles Wade Roberts, who died Aug. 22 at age 69, according to the Orange County coroner's office.

A connoisseur of plants and gardens, Roberts spent his horticultural career serving as the sole director of Sherman Library and Gardens, a botanical refuge in Corona del Mar.

He also involved himself in community organizations. After the decision was made in the 1990s to remove the ficus trees from the side of the highway, Roberts came up with the idea of alternating the leafy, flowering Hong Kong orchid trees with the King Palms, Newport Beach Councilman Ed Selich said.

Not only did Roberts propose the idea, but he also helped develop watering and other maintenance systems to sustain them.

"It really adds a lot to the ambience of the coast highway," Selich said. "He was a very giving man."

Roberts assumed his role at the Sherman Library and Gardens in 1966, when he was appointed by founder Arnold Haskell. He and Haskell worked closely to develop the now 2.2-acre space into a cultural center for the community.

After Haskell's death in 1977, Roberts ensured that his vision would be carried out, said John Bishop, the acting director of the gardens who has served as the manager of horticulture there for nearly 20 years.

"He basically developed the block as you see it today," said Bishop, describing Roberts as a genuine, respectful and compassionate boss who always emphasized the importance of family. "This is his legacy."

On Wednesday, visitors wandered the garden pathways under a blue sky, snapping photos of various agave species and pausing to admire potted annual begonias — one of Roberts' favorite types of flowers — bursting with pinks and reds.

The gardens, on East Coast Highway, mute the rumble of vehicles traveling past and provide instead a sense of calm for guests. Included on the property, among the more than 1,400 different types of plants, are a restaurant and a library focused on the history of the Pacific Southwest.

"The gardens will always have the earmark of Wade's passion, talent and knowledge," wrote D.T. Daniels, president of the its board of trustees, in a letter addressed to friends and fellows of the organization.

Roberts participated in local efforts like the Corona del Mar Chamber of Commerce and Corona del Mar Business Improvement District.

He often opened the gardens for community groups to host events and meetings, which were always well attended, said Karen Tringali, president of the Corona del Mar Residents Assn.

"The community at large is just devastated by the news," she said.

Roberts grew up in the Chino area and graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in ornamental horticulture, Bishop said.

On days when he wasn't working, the laid-back Roberts often wore Hawaiian shirts. He enjoyed traveling to Hawaii on vacation, Bishop recalled, and in other free time playing guitar and listening to Elvis Presley.

A memorial for Roberts will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 10 at the gardens. The service is open to the public.

Roberts is survived by two children, Darren Roberts and Darcie Bourgeios. His wife, Jan, died in July. He had planned to retire from his post as director at the end of the year.

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