Fran Giglio and Carolyn Ruff watch Stan Sechler press soil around the base of a young tree planted Nov. 23, 2022 in Phelps Grove Park. Ruff helps Fran Giglio keep the young trees watered during the summer months. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The future of Phelps Grove Park — one of Springfield oldest and most beloved parks — is looking good, thanks in large part to a woman named Fran Giglio.

Giglio has lived across the street from the park since 1976. And every year on the day before Thanksgiving, Giglio plants a variety of trees throughout the park. 

On Wednesday, she planted her 198th tree: a sycamore sapling on the south side of the park.

Fran Giglio, the tree lady of Phelps Grove Park, keeps an eye on planting while posing next to a Kousa dogwood that was the first tree Giglio had planted in the park, moving it from her and her husband Jim’s house across the street. Giglio has been responsible for planting nearly two hundred trees in the park. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

She gets some help from friends in the neighborhood, and Park Board employees do the actual digging and planting. But it’s Giglio who buys them and decides which type of tree will go where.

Her tree-planting tradition started after the ice storm of 2007. 

“The park was just devastated,” she said. “They lost about 35 percent of the trees in the park. They were damaged. You can still see some of the damage on some of the trees (where) the tops are broken off.

“I just thought something needed to be done,” Giglio continued. “It made me realize that it has to be a gradual thing. You can’t replace all the trees at the same time. So I thought, ‘OK, I can start donating about 10 or 12. And that is what I’ve done every year since then.”

Stan Sechler from the Springfield Greene County Park Board plants another tree in Phelps Grove Park on the day before Thanksgiving. Sechler is a crew leader at the Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden at the Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park and a certified arborist. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Historic park known for its trees

Phelps Grove Park is well over 100 years old and many of its trees are dying. While talking to the Springfield Daily Citizen, Giglio pointed out a few that would soon need to be taken down. That’s why it’s so important to Giglio that new trees are planted every year.

Giglio is thoughtful about what she plants, picking out trees that will keep the park beautiful year round: evergreen trees for the winter months, maple trees for the fall and dogwoods and redbuds for the spring.

This year she planted two new-to-Phelps Grove Park varieties: an aspen and a catalpa (which she planted near Catalpa Street). She also planted a bald cypress, a dogwood and a couple of redbuds. She planted the redbuds on the north side of the park in an area she likes to call “redbud corner.”

One of the 10 trees planted in Phelps Grove Park on Nov. 23, 2022, was a catalpa sapling. Fittingly the tree was planted adjacent to West Catalpa Street. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“In the spring, it’s just gorgeous with all these redbuds blooming at the same time,” she said.

“This is Springfield’s tree park,” Giglio said, motioning to the 30-acre park in central Springfield. “If you ask almost anyone who is here what do you like in this park, they will say it’s the trees.”

Giglio said her passion for her tree-planting project has only grown over the years. One of the first things she does every morning and then before she goes to bed is look out her front window into the park. 

“The trees will save us. The earth has gotten warmer and warmer,” she said. “They (the trees) do cool us. And it provides some shelter for wildlife. … The earth needs the trees.”

Jim and Fran Giglio and Carolyn Ruff watch Stan Sechler dig a hole for another tree at Phelps Grove Park. Ruff helps Fran Giglio keep the young trees watered during the summer months. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Giglio and a friend from the neighborhood tend to the new trees throughout the year. During dry spells in the summer, they will water the newly planted trees. And in the fall, they rake up pine needles to use as mulch around the base of trees.

Asked where her love of trees comes from, Giglio said it’s probably from her father, who also loved trees. And it’s something she’s passed down to her son, who also plants trees whenever and wherever possible. 

“I wanted to be a botany major in college,” she said, “but back then women didn’t do that kind of thing. I’m a teacher, but that is OK. I think I’m good at that, too.” 

Fran Giglio makes sure that an aspen tree sapling is straight as Stan Sechler from the Springfield Greene County Park Board prepares to fill in the hole for the young tree. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Tree-hugger also loves immigrants

Giglio teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at Ozarks Technical Community College — something she’s done for more than 40 years.

“I’m old enough to have retired a long time ago,” the 79-year-old said. “But it’s so much fun. These people are just incredible people. Most people don’t understand that there is a wide diversity of different cultures in Springfield now.”

Earlier this week, Giglio brought in turkey and fixings for her students, many of whom have never celebrated Thanksgiving. They took a few minutes to go around the room and say where they were from, with countries including Mexico, Ukraine, Moldova, Korea, China, Myanmar and Vietnam. 

“It was such a wide variety,” she said, smiling. “They all become friends and work  together. I’m a strong advocate for immigrants. They built this country.”

Jim and Fran Giglio walk through section of Phelps Grove Park. Fran is responsible for the planting of nearly two hundred trees in the park since 1978. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Giglio known as ‘special friend’ to park

Jenny Edwards is the spokesperson for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and has known of Giglio’s tree-planting for years.

Edwards recalled Giglio hauling buckets of water from Giglio’s home to new trees during the dry seasons.

“Phelps Grove is one of our 10 historic parks. All of these parks are beloved for their trees,” Edwards said. “We’ve lost a few trees at Phelps Grove due to storms and due to disease. And it’s a heartbreaker when one of them goes down. It’s like an old friend. To us, it feels good knowing these trees are in the ground.

“We are very thankful for Fran and the work she has done at the park,” she added. “She is a special friend to Phelps Grove Park.”

A few green leaves still cling to the young the aspen tree planted Nov. 23, 2022, in Phelps Grove Park. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

About Phelps Grove Park

Phelps Grove Park is located at 950 E. Bennett St., just south of the Missouri State University campus. 

According to the Springfield-Greene County Park Board’s website:

Phelps Grove Park was one of the first new parks acquired by the Park Board, on April 22, 1914. At that time, the park was south of Springfield city limits.

In the 1930s, McGee-McGregor Wading Pool was constructed and the WPA/CCC lined Fassnight Creek with stone. The original park featured zoo animals, relocated to Dickerson Park Zoo in 1923, and a man-made lake, now the site of the Springfield Art Museum. 

The park’s namesake is one of Springfield’s founding families, Gov. John S. and Mary Whitney Phelps, whose homestead included the area of the park and surrounding neighborhood. Today the 30-acre park is home to mature trees, a paved walking track, a playground, McGee-McGregor Wading Pool, the Victims’ Memorial Garden, the Perry Tennis Courts, and the WaterWise Garden.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald