Angela Merkel’s Gardener and the Unexpected Mentors in Our Life

I just finished reading The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.  I was impressed by many details of her remarkable life, including the impact made on her by her family’s gardener.

            Angela’s father was a Lutheran pastor who had volunteered to serve in Soviet-controlled East Germany during the Cold War. He and his family were sent to the city of Templin.  He was respected for his dedication and work ethic but was often an intimidating presence.  He had a strict schedule and high expectations for his daughter, and while she learned logical rigor and discipline from him, he was emotionally distant and often absent.  Her mother was busy with her own duties, and Angela was often alone.  As it turned out, she found an unexpected mentor.

            “I remember a gardener, a sturdy older man, who instilled basic trust and great calm in me,” Angela recalled much later.

            “I learned all kinds of things from him about practical life.  I learned how to identify flowers, or when the cyclamen was in season.  From him I learned how to talk to the mentally disabled. With him the atmosphere was warm and trusting, and he allowed me to eat carrots fresh from the ground.  This man awakened a connection to the earth and to nature for me…today I recognize how important time is, more important than possessions.”[i]

            Angela Merkel went on to become a nuclear chemist and a remarkably effective politician.  She was the first woman ever to head a German government – and was elected four times, serving 16 years.  She also led the European Union through many crises, standing up to Vladimir Putin time and again, and was a leading spokesperson for democracy and international cooperation.  Her quiet wisdom, analytical abilities, and patience enabled her to either persuade or outlast many of her opponents.  Throughout her career, she would return to the forests and land of Templin for rest and renewal. Apparently, the lessons she learned from the gardener — ”basic trust,” “great calm,” a deep connection to the earth, and how to talk to anyone respectfully – became hallmarks of her own character.

            This led me to think about people in our lives beyond family who have had a lasting impact on us.  One person who comes to mind for me is an old painting contractor I worked for, Tom Childress.

            As a teenager, I earned money in the summer and on breaks by learning to paint houses.  I often worked on my own, but twice worked for painting contractors.

            One was a big property manager. He paid us $2.50/hour, was often impatient, and more than once missed our payday because he was out of town.

            And then there was Tom.  Old guy with white hair, always dressed in white, paint-speckled overalls who drove a faded-yellow Dodge camper truck.  He was fond of Busch Bavarian beer, and a Styrofoam cooler with a six-pack was always by his side. Tom paid $4/hour.  He patiently taught me all he knew about painting.  Friday was payday, and he often went to the bank at lunch time and came back with a roll of 20s to pay us in cash.  More than once, he’d let us off early on Fridays after paying us for the full day.  

            I worked hard for Tom.  And I learned from him what it’s like to work for someone who genuinely respects their employees.  (Though I have yet to gain an appreciation for Busch Bavarian.)

            I think of Mr. Kenley, a high school English teacher who must have gone through many boxes of red pens.  At first, I resented all the corrections and questions he wrote on every assignment. But in time I realized he was doing his best to make us better writers. After my first year away at college, I went back to his classroom to thank him.

            And something one of my Spanish teachers said still lingers with me.  One day in class, after sharing a personal story, he said, “You know, in life we need two kinds of experiences: some to make us proud and some to keep us humble.  We need both to be a real person.”  It didn’t have anything to do with Spanish, but I’ve never forgotten it.

            I don’t know if Angela Merkel’s gardener lived to see her become Chancellor of Germany.  I’m guessing he could not have imagined that the time he spent with her would shape her character and career, and through her, the fate of democracy in the modern world.  We never know the impact we have on others.

            Who taught you lasting lessons along your way?

Painting: Camille Pissarro, The Gardener: Old Peasant with Cabbage, 1895

[i] The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angel Merkel, by Kati Marton, pg. 7


  1. Dawn says:

    Enjoyed this one Steve. I did Storyworth for my kids. I answered this question in one of the prompts. It’s important to tell those that have made an impact on our lives. You are certainly one that has impacted mine.


  2. elsakaye says:

    Why you, Steve, who suggested I read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which lead to many more books by Jungian therapist, which lead to getting a masters degree in depth psychology, which lead to career I enjoyed.


    1. I loved Jung at that point, and it didn’t really resonate with anyone else — but you! So glad we each found his work and his way of understanding images, stories, and self.


  3. Wow! Thank you Steve. As I sit here in Costa Rica, I’m remembering two high school teachers – both took an interest in me – that interest encouraged me to go to college. And of course my wonderful late husband Roy was one of my biggest fans. With his ongoing support, I finished my PhD.

    Thank you for encouraging me to reflect and wonder. It takes a village. 🥂


    1. Kathleen: Great to hear from you. Loved seeing your photos from Costa Rica — I was in Monteverde in 93 and would love to go again. So glad the post resonated with you and to hear your appreciation for those mentors. Have a great trip! Steve


  4. pcorrigan22yahoocom says:

    My tenth grade English teacher changed my life – forever.
    In 1960, Miss Marita Mathews asked me what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I’d never thought about it, except maybe to be a wife and have children. But after a moment, I said, “Maybe I could be a teacher.” Miss Mathews told me I’d have to go to college to do that. Not known to me at the time, was the fact that I was in a non-college track. I said something about not ever being able to afford college. In her thick, charming Kentucky drawl, she explained that she grew up as sharecropper’s daughter, lived in a dirt floor shack, and found a way to go to Kentucky State by working her way through. She said, “Honey, if I could do it, you certainly can!” That was it! I announced to my shocked parents that I was going to college. That summer, I started waitressing and saving every dime. I was on fire! In the fall, Miss Mathews got me into a college prep track, and the rest is the history of my little story. God Bless Miss Marita Mathews! Thanks,Steve, for the opportunity to remember, share, and feel the gratitude all over again.


    1. All hail Miss Marita Matthews! Wonderful story. Did she even know the impact she had on you?



      1. pcorrigan22yahoocom says:

        As a shallow youth, I never even went back to her homeroom to thank her. By the time I was old enough to realize the significance to my life of what Miss Mathews did, it was too late to express my gratitude. Over the years, I‘ve tried to find her, but with no success. I now continue to feel deeply the mystery of how small fated moments in time can forever change time.


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