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Groundskeeper Stewarded Bradley Estate for Nearly 50 Years

Bob Retko tended the Lynden Sculpture Garden  long before it took on that name or mission.

Retko grew up nearby in River Hills. He first wandered onto the grounds off Brown Deer Road with a friend when he was 10 years old. But it was during his teenage summers that Retko was hired to help tend the grounds.

“I worked through high school an then I went to UW-Stevens Point and earned biology and natural resources degrees,” Retko says.

He returned here. “For a variety of reasons. Number one, I learned that if you work for some of the agencies, if you work you way up the ranks you sit behind a desk. Whereas here, I’ve been the field more. So there’s some benefits,” Retko says.

Credit S Bence
The "lake" before spring greened the grounds.

His boss was Mrs. Bradley – as in the wife of industrialist Harry.

“When I started here in 1966, Mrs. Bradley was swimming in the lake,” Retko says.

A manmade lake for the Bradleys pleasure….. ‘Just beyond that aluminimum sculpture, there was a diving platform and it had 13 stops going up to a diving board. When Mr. Bradley had this built it was more like a resort area. When he bought it the property in 1928, Brown Deer Road was a two-lane gravel road. And with him working down at Allen Bradley, that was quite a drive coming out here,” Retko says.

He shrugs off the idea that he has been the first “scientist” on the Bradley staff. He felt he was carrying on an important legacy.

“We grew a lot of vegetables and things. Mr Bradley was one of the co-founders of Allen Bradley company and they had a cafeteria and they had a garden down here and they took the vegetables from down here to the cafeteria. Mr. Bradley kind of prided himself for that, I’ve been told,” Retko says.

Today Retko seems to know every tree on the grounds. He says his work on the parcel is relying more and more on natural methods – only sparingly using herbicide treatment.

“ We mow and then we try to pick seed and disperse the seed,” he says.

Retko says they use the “lasagna method”.

“We have a small trailer that we fill with a layer of sawdust and a layer of seed, another layer sawdust and layer of seed. One person drives the tractor, and the other person sits in the trailer with a backpack blower and as we go along with an inch or so of snow on the ground. We blow it out in various areas, kind of burst it out,” he says.

Retko says they’ve started to see some of plants popping up on the landscape.

Gazing across the diverse acres, Retko has tended, you spot the work of famous sculptors – from Russian Alexander Archipenko to South African Isaac Witkin

Retko says the lines often blur between land stewardship and art. Recently he dealt with rogue trees that had sprouted up on some grassy berms along the property’s northern edge…

“That means hand-weeding, so we end up going through with a herbicide and we add blue dye to it, so we know where we’ve sprayed. People came out and they thought we were creating art,” Retko says.

He says “a difference in vision” extends back to earlier days, when the Bradleys had competing priorities for the property.

Credit Polly Morris
Another longtime staffer, Lynden's resident sculpture/facilities manager Sergio Salinas restored and reinstalled Duayne Hatchett's Rainbow in time for the barbecue event.

“Mr. Bradley and Carl (Carl Urban, the Bradley’s longtime gardener) would go out in the wintertime and look for elms growing in farmers fields and they would go to the farmer and say ‘we would like that elm, can we dig it out’ and bring out into the property. So Mr. Bradley was always looking at it more as an aroboretum, where as Mrs. Bradley was looking at it as an art gallery. When Mr. Bradley died and and elm died, she would replace it with a sculpture. They both had a little bit different interests, but it made the place,” Retko says.

As we talked , Retko was about to retire. He insisted his nearly fifty years of service would NOT be marked with any fancy reception or closing lunch, nor is he obsessed with the legacy he would leave behind.

Even so, descendants of the Bradleys sing Retko’s praises for his skilled pond management and native plant expertise. Coworkers say he’s an extraordinary steward of the Gardens and mentor to his colleagues.

And, art seems to have slipped into Retko’s being.

"Before it was just a static collection, we still have the collection, but there’s a lot more emphasis on local artists and bringing in local temporary exhibits. And there’s much more educational aspects to it, than there was before,” Retko says.

Credit S Bence
Bob Retko early last spring before his retirement.

Before I left, the senior groundskeeper wanted his photo taken next to Henry Moore’s Large Torso.

Tonight, Retko is slipping briefly back on to the Lynden Sculpture Garden grounds. He’ll be using another one of his skills - helping to roast a pig, as he’s done at many of Harry & Peg Bradley’s backyard barbecues in years past.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.