Homewood gardener finalist for Jefferson Award

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Beyond an appreciative look or an occasional word of thanks from her fellow Homewood residents, Mary Savage never expected any recognition for beautifying the neighborhood with her floral plantings. Well, she is getting it anyway—and she is delighted.

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FLOWERING FRIENDSHIP— With her long-time friend Sarah Garnett, Mary Savage takes a break from weeding daffodils in one of the 11 gardens she has created in Homewood. Savage is a finalist for the Jefferson Awards Volunteer of the Year.

Savage, who has been planting floral arrangements, reclaiming vacant lots and beautifying whole blocks throughout her neighborhood for more than 20 years, is a finalist for a Jefferson Award for Public Service. She is one of seven finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer of the Year. But don’t call her “the flower lady.”

“That makes it sound like it’s easy,” said Savage. “We’ve hauled all kinds of things out of these lots—refrigerators, tires, shopping carts, even stoves.”

Sarah Garnett, a friend of Savage’s since they worked together at the Carnegie Libraries, said she’ll be at the awards ceremony.

“She’s been gardening for as long as I’ve known her,” said Garnett. “She started across from the Homewood Library at least 20 years ago. She has the stamina. Now you see her pushing that wheelbarrow all over the place. She’s very excited to be recognized and appreciated like that.”

Savage, who says she’s on this side of 80, moved here from Alabama when she was five. She is a founding board member of Pittsburgh’s Shade Tree Commission and chairs the Homewood-Brushton Community Improvement Association.

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TRUE GREEN—Seen weeding one of her 11 neighborhood gardens, Mary Savage has brightened Homewood with her plantings for more than 30 years. She is a finalist for the Jefferson Awards Volunteer of the Year.

John Brewer, owner of the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum, has helped Savage clear some of the vacant lots she has revived. There is even a drawing of her on the outside of the Meadow Lanes building adjoining his.

“She’s doing this for 35-plus years,” he said. “She started on corner of Hamilton Avenue, then started clearing lots, and it just grew. Bennett Street and Frankstown Avenue are probably her largest plantings. Sometimes what she’s done has fallen on deaf ears, but she’s done what she can to beautify Homewood. No one would dispute that she has an extreme green thumb.”

Savage remembers Brew­er’s daughter working on that first lot when she was a child.

“She was out there when she was three years old. Now she’s grown with kids of her own,” she said. “You know, people ask why don’t we do more, but we have to maintain the ones we have. We want them to look professional. Always make it a step or so better so someone else might follow along—and they are, asking questions about light, planting and water.”

Savage has her beautification efforts down to a science. With all the empty lots in Homewood owned by either the city of Pittsburgh or the Urban Redevelopment Authority, she goes Downtown, gets a gardening waiver for the lot she wants and gets to work.

Neighbors donate water, men donate labor, removing heavy obstacles, school students donate time, and gardening clubs and nonprofits donate supplies and government officials like state Rep. Joe Preston Jr., D-East Liberty, donate funds. Savage does the rest.

Savage said even though she’s received awards from various nonprofits, community groups and even WQED, the Jefferson Award nomination is special.

“Oh this is a biggy,” she said. “It’s the biggest one—it’s like the Nobel Prize for volunteers.”

Every year, the Jefferson Awards honor local volunteers for their public service efforts. The ceremony will be held at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History in Oakland April 21. It was to have been held Feb. 11, but the record snowstorm forced a postponement. All 50 winners, who were nominated by people or organizations in their communities, will receive special medals.

The event is open to the public and will take place in the Music Hall from 7-8:30 p.m. The awards program is sponsored by the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and Highmark, and is administered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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