30 January 2024

Mt Pleasant man receives OAM for bloomin' beautiful contribution to community

| Zoe Cartwright
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David Stanton OAM on the sandstone steps he built in the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

Stubbornness is a Stanton family trait – luckily for Wollonong.

Mt Pleasant man David John Stanton received an Order of Australia Medal for service to the community on Australia Day, due to his tireless work on the Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens.

The gardens were the brainchild of his father, Don Stanton, an engineer who fell in love with the sprawling, tranquil gardens he saw on travels to the UK.

The engineer was told it was impossible to grow rhododendrons in Wollongong, but he didn’t listen.

“Dad wasn’t the kind of person you could say ‘no’ to, and being the stubborn bloke he was, he began to research and experiment,” David recalls.

“Now we have the only garden in the world where the three main types of rhododendron grow side by side.

“You can grow almost anything in Wollongong if you find the right spot.”

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The gardens were established in 1969, after the Illawarra Rhododendron Society secured a lease for 14 hectares of land from Australian Iron and Steel on land where the original Mt Pleasant coal mine had been.

David was involved from the gardens’ inception, and has been personally involved in the selection of most of the gardens’ plants for the past 50 years.

No matter the season, if you visit the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens, you’ll find something in bloom.

He has also built many of the features in the gardens himself, including most recently a set of sandstone steps that took three years to complete – not bad for a man in his 80s.

“We started with huge sandstone blocks that we had to cut and grind into shape,” he says.

“I’m not a builder or gardener by trade, but neither was Dad.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of work, but you can’t build a garden in five minutes, and if you don’t try to do something, you won’t find out whether you can.”

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David has stepped down from his roles as park president and park manager but still takes an active role as a volunteer and foundation member of the gardens.

Two strokes, back issues and chronic asthma have done little to slow him down.

The gardens have faced their own challenges, with floods and bushfires wreaking havoc over the years.

Despite the obstacles, David remains passionate about the gardens’ purpose.

He says they’re not just there to look pretty, but to provide a space for the community to enjoy.

“I believe in what we’re trying to do here, and it motivates me to do things like building the stairs,” he says.

“Dad said people need somewhere peaceful they can come to, and he was right.

“Kids come out here and go nuts; we have lots of weddings, and visitors go gaga over the view.

“When you get old doctors say don’t do this and don’t do that, but I don’t believe them.

“I like the challenge, and places like this are good for people.”

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