Stephen Alan Spongberg

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Born Oct. 15, 1942, to Alan Edward Spongberg (1912–81) and Barbara Elsie Sandehn Spongberg (1912–08), Stephen Alan Spongberg died at home in Westwood on March 18, 2021, of complications related to oral cancer. 

Steve grew up in Rockford, Ill., attended Rockford College, and went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where, in 1971, he earned a Ph.D. in botany. Steve’s professional positions included, in part, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum and curator of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, both emeritus positions at the time of his death. His primary research interests included magnolias and stewartias. His field studies took him to the Rocky Mountains, Japan, Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. He was the Arnold Arboretum’s participant in the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to western Hubei Province, PRC. Steve held many editorial positions over the years, including memberships on the editorial boards of Harvard Papers in Botany, 1996–98, and the Plantsman, 1996–2006. He was editor of the Journal of The Arnold Arboretum, 1979–90, and associate editor of Rhodora, Journal of the New England Botanical Club, 1972–78. Steve served on many committees, published numerous articles, and wrote several books, including “A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and Their Introduction into North American and European Landscapes,” 1990, and “Island Life: A Catalog of the Biodiversity On and Around Martha’s Vineyard,” 2008, which he co-authored with Allan Keith.

Awards and recognition Steve received include the naming of the Polly Hill Arboretum Library in his honor, 2004; the Thomas Roland Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 2001; the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1996; and the Award of Distinction from the Alumni Association of Rockford College, 1983. Two plant species new to science have been named in Steve’s honor, Cotoneaster spongbergii and Sorbus spongbergii. Steve enjoyed reading literature classics, and was a dedicated armchair traveler. He was a passionate collector of antiques and oriental rugs, and he had an impressive collection of botanical and natural history–themed postage stamps. He loved classical music and opera, particularly the works of Bach, Handel, and Wagner. He thrived on hikes and walks. Any garden he created was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Those who knew him best were treated to his subtle and often mischievous wit. He was an excellent chef, and his enthusiasm for cooking and his Swedish heritage expressed themselves each December, as he spent weeks preparing an elaborate Christmas Eve smörgåsbord for friends and family. Loved and respected by many, Steve was indeed a gentleman.

Steve is survived by his wife, Harmony (“Happy”) Clement Spongberg of Westwood, his daughter Harmony (“Nia”) Sandehn Spongberg, and daughter-in-law Margaret (“Mollie”) Leslie McDermott of Ann Arbor, Mich., and among others, his closest nephews, William Boggs of Tiverton, R.I., and Nathan Boggs of Beloit, Wis. Steve was predeceased by his sister Sondra Kay Spongberg Boggs (2012) and nephew Andrew Boggs (1987). 

A memorial gathering will be private. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the Polly Hill Arboretum or the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

1 COMMENT

  1. I recall many fun times dining with Steve and Happy at Julia Sturgis’s and Eleanor Pearlson’s home in Chilmark. Steve was very enthusiastic about his work the Polly Hill Arboretum, and I so enjoyed hearing him speak about the interesting things going on there. I am delighted to see that his valuable contributions were recognized during his lifetime. Steve was such an upbeat person even while he fought cancer; he never lost his joie de vivre. I will miss him and my heart goes out to Happy and Nia.

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