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George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008

Bloomington man who lived simply, caring for the land leaves $650,000 to IU's Hilltop Garden Center

George E. Archer Fund will primarily assist the garden's youth programs

June 2, 2008

EDITORS: A celebration is being held today (June 2) at 2 p.m. at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, 2367 E. 10th St. The facility is located west of the intersection of Indiana 45/46 and 10th Street and down the driveway for Tulip Tree apartments. Most people involved in this story will attend and be available to speak with reporters. Other photos are available.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A Bloomington man who died last year at age 100, never married or had children, lived simply and supported himself by caring for other people's lawns and property has left his entire $650,000 estate to Indiana University's Hilltop Garden and Nature Center.

The funds have been received by the Hilltop Educational Foundation (HEF), a volunteer group that serves as an advisory, advocacy and fundraising organization for Hilltop. HEF has established the George E. Archer Fund with the proceeds of Archer's estate. It will primarily assist the garden's youth programs.

The gift is the largest donation in Hilltop's 60-year history. Hilltop is an auxiliary unit of the IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

A 1968 photo of a 10-year-old girl holding up a giant zucchini inspired the idea of the bequest. Initially, the Archer Fund will provide full scholarships for 10 children in Hilltop's Youth Garden Program, in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington. The Boys and Girls Club has identified this year's recipients.

The gift also will enable HEF to conduct a major fundraising campaign. The goal of the campaign will be to expand and improve Hilltop's facilities and programs.

"Mr. Archer has honored our Youth Garden Program with his very generous gift," said Hilltop Director Greg Speichert. "In turn, we will remember him and his life of working with the soil every day through the kids who will benefit from that gift."

"We are humbled by Mr. Archer's bequest to the Hilltop Educational Foundation and to the foundation's continued support of Hilltop Gardens," added Robert M. Goodman, dean and professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Cathy Cohen

This 1968 photo of Cathy Cohen inspired the idea of the bequest to IU's Hilltop Garden and Nature Center.

Print-Quality Photo

Archer worked for many years for Bloomington resident Edwin Cohen, the executor of his estate.

"George tended our yard. He appeared to be very poor. He drove a decrepit pickup truck and wore tattered work clothes. He lived in a mobile home that was several cuts below substandard," Cohen remembered. "Yet my wife and I admired George as an able and dependable helper who neither drank, smoked, cursed or gambled.

"We marveled at his vigorous longevity,' Cohen continued. "In short, he was his own man."

Cohen's involvement in the estate began in 2004 after Archer broke his hip and was moved into a care facility. Archer's attorney, who had become his guardian, quickly created a will for Archer.

"George was distressed. He believed he had been unjustly confined. His displeasure increased when he belatedly discovered that his will named his lawyer the primary beneficiary of his considerable estate," Cohen said. "Surprisingly, after George's lifetime of privation, his lawyer declared that George had assets of $250,000."

"George needed a new will with an acceptable beneficiary. Try as he might, he could not name one," Cohen added. "Basically, George was a loner. He had no real friends. He cared little for organizations and causes. I thought his beneficiary ought to have something to do with gardening, since that was his lifetime vocation. When I recalled the zucchini picture of my daughter at Hilltop, it struck me that that was an ideal beneficiary."

Archer readily agreed and proudly said later at a court hearing, "My estate is going to help boys and girls." After his death, it was found that Archer's estate amounted to $650,000. The attorney who tried to receive it has since been disciplined for his actions.

Hilltop Garden and Nature Center

Director Greg Speichert cares for Hilltop today

Print-Quality Photo

Cohen, a retired educational television executive, was invited to IU by then-president Herman B Wells in the early 1960s. At that time, Archer was a caretaker on a local farm and also tended yards to make a living. He lived for many years in a mobile home on Kirksville Road in southern Monroe County. Yet, their relationship was closer than their differences in social and economic status would suggest. The Cohens liked "George" and especially remembered him at Christmas, on his birthdays and when he was ill.

When Archer first called Cohen, pleading for help in 2004, Cohen promptly responded.

"Everything about George's situation seemed wrong," Cohen said. "My wife and I immediately agreed we should do all that we could for George -- and we did."

Hilltop Garden and Nature Center offers one of the oldest children's gardening programs in the country. It was established in 1948 by the late Barbara Shalucha, a faculty member in IU's biology department. Herman B Wells, IU's president at the time, provided property for the purpose, and Hilltop began on an alfalfa field at its present location off East 10th Street, north of Tulip Tree Apartments.

In 1960, a garden house was constructed on the property. It is still used by the Youth Garden Program. HEF was organized in 1984, and in 1990 began planning a fundraising campaign for a new greenhouse and classroom facility, which was dedicated in 1993. Construction was funded by $450,000 raised by HEF, including a bequest from Shalucha's estate. Sadly, Shalucha did not live to see the new building, as she died in May 1992.

In 1990, the Bloomington Garden Club initiated its Annual Summer Garden Walk to benefit Hilltop. Over the years, the Garden Club has contributed more than $100,000 in proceeds from the walk. This year's Garden Walk is scheduled for Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. each day, rain or shine.

Hilltop continues to offer its Youth Garden Program each summer. This year's program will begin June 2 and run through Aug. 8. The children will work in teams on 5-foot-by-10-foot plots, growing corn, beans, cucumbers, zucchini and other vegetables. As a complement to plenty of hands-on gardening, the children will study plant parts and plant development, composting, the water cycle, weeds and pests, as well as other garden-related topics.

Information about Hilltop is available at 812-855-2799 or