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Marc Cathey; Champion of Horticulture

H. Marc Cathey was director of the U.S. National Arboretum from 1981 to 1991.
H. Marc Cathey was director of the U.S. National Arboretum from 1981 to 1991. (American Horticultural Society)
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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

H. Marc Cathey, 79, former director of the U.S. National Arboretum and a flamboyant promoter of gardening everywhere, died Oct. 8 at a nursing home in his home town of Davidson, N.C. He had Parkinson's disease.

Tall, dapper, and with ties and handkerchiefs as colorful as his persona, Dr. Cathey gave hundreds of lectures during his career that combined scientific authority with sheer showmanship. He was sometimes called Dr. Purple, after his favorite hue.

Before the dawn of PowerPoint, he would extol the virtues of plants using multiple slide projectors, soundtracks and, on occasion, smoke machines, confetti and other special effects.

"He got people wowed up because of his ability to tell stories and to bring life and drama to everything," said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. "There was no one else like him in horticulture."

Dr. Cathey was arboretum director from 1981 to 1991, a time of growth at the botanical garden and research facility in Northeast Washington.

He oversaw the expansion of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum; the creation of the National Capitol Columns garden; and the New American Garden, a demonstration garden of perennials and grasses designed by landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden and Associates at Dr. Cathey's bidding.

His tenure also marked a period when gardening was undergoing a dynamic shift toward a more natural style, and Dr. Cathey became a leading voice in the movement toward greater use of perennials and ornamental grasses.

He coined the phrase "tough plants for tough times" to convey the need for lower-maintenance landscapes that were kinder to the environment than the former lawn- and chemical-dominated model.

After leaving the arboretum, he was president of the Alexandria-based American Horticultural Society from 1993 to 1997. He retired as the society's president emeritus in 2005, when he and his wife, Mary, returned to North Carolina from Silver Spring.

Besides his wife of 50 years, Dr. Cathey is survived by two children, Marcy E. Cathey of Bowie and Henry M. Cathey Jr. of Chincoteague, Va.; and four granddaughters.

In spite of five decades living and working in the Washington area, Dr. Cathey never lost his lilting Tarheel voice, which became familiar to countless radio listeners over the years.

He had a weekend radio show on WWRC-AM for more than a decade until 1994 and later became a regular guest on public radio locally. He also appeared on NBC's "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America."


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