Barbara Oliva helped bring Sacramento’s historic City Cemetery back to life.
Amid tumbled tombstones and waist-high weeds, the retired teacher saw potential beauty and opportunity. Mrs. Oliva, a volunteer at the then-neglected cemetery near her home, shepherded a massive makeover over the past two decades that included the restoration of graves and memorials as well as planting more than 500 rare and unusual roses.
As curator, Mrs. Oliva also nurtured the cemetery rose garden’s long-term health and recruited scores of volunteers. Now, the cemetery’s open garden days, rose sales and sold-out October Lantern Tours led by costumed docents attract thousands of patrons.
“She actually was involved from the beginning, planting the roses and finding volunteers,” recalled longtime friend Anita Clevenger, who now serves as the cemetery rose garden’s manager and curator. “Many of the things we do now, she initiated. People like to help plant gardens. What’s hard is keeping it going, which she did, too.”
Mrs. Oliva, 87, died Wednesday after several months of declining health. Plans for a memorial are pending.
“She loved to learn and loved to teach others,” said Clevenger, noting Mrs. Oliva had admirers worldwide. “She will live on through the rose garden and the many people who knew her. She made a difference in her life.”
Mrs. Oliva is survived by her daughter, Jean Oliva of Sacramento; son, Paul Oliva of Washington, D.C., and three grandchildren. Her husband, Anthony Oliva, an architect for the state of California, died in 1978.
“I’m very proud of her,” Jean Oliva said. “She could have had a very lonely time; she never remarried. But she filled her retirement with gardening. I was tickled she had something to do, but more so by all her friends, especially those in other nations. She made friends in France, Australia, all over the world through roses and her work.”
Mrs. Oliva left her legacy in flowers. Through her efforts, the City Cemetery rose collection became internationally famous. In 2009, it was an inaugural inductee into the Great Rosarians of the World (GROW) hall of fame.
“It’s a living library of roses,” said Clair Martin, GROW co-founder. “Sacramento has the whole history of California and the roses that grew during those events. It literally has roses that cannot be found anywhere else.”
Preserving those rare roses became Mrs. Oliva’s cause.
“We’re on a rescue mission,” Mrs. Oliva told The Sacramento Bee in 2009. “It’s our responsibility to save this genetic material before it’s lost forever.”
Mrs. Oliva wanted not only to preserve rose rarities, but reintroduce them to the public.
“Barbara understood the importance of preservation and that this was a collection, not just a display garden,” Clevenger said. “(In the garden), these roses had a better chance of survival for future generations, but she also wanted them shared with other people and growing in their gardens.”
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Mrs. Oliva was born in San Rafael and grew up in Mendocino and small towns in northern Nevada. She settled in Sacramento to teach. At her South Land Park home of 60 years, Mrs. Oliva packed the landscape with unusual plants.
“I simply grew up with gardening being an important part of my life,” she said last year in an interview with a rose newsletter.
After she retired from teaching second grade at Westfield Village Elementary School in West Sacramento, Mrs. Oliva started volunteering at the cemetery in the early 1990s.
“It looked like a classic haunted cemetery with dead weeds everywhere, perfect for vampires and monsters,” recalled daughter Jean Oliva. “How she turned that into such a beautiful, wonderful garden is amazing to me.”
In 1992, Mrs. Oliva started her cemetery garden project with 100 roses, mostly donated by former Huntington Library and Gardens rose expert Fred Boutin.
For two decades, Mrs. Oliva worked in the garden every day, personally watering plants or pulling weeds. During tours, she wore Victorian dress to get visitors into the garden’s 19th century spirit. A constant educator, she trained hundreds of volunteers how to prune and nurture sometimes finicky roses.
“Volunteers started it, volunteers run it,” said Mrs. Oliva of the cemetery garden in a 2012 Bee interview. “A lot of that went into its success.”
“When she needed to get (volunteers’) attention, she’d say, ‘I’ll put on my playground voice now,’ ” recalled Clevenger. “She had a great singing voice, too. She performed Gilbert and Sullivan.
“People liked to volunteer because she was such an interesting person,” Clevenger added. “She knew so much about history and was so vital and involved. She was always willing to learn and do new things. Her refrain was, ‘Let’s try this!’ ”
At the cemetery, Mrs. Oliva believed in letting Victorian era roses grow as nature intended. Some bushes reached mammoth proportions, climbing 40 feet up trees or cascading over steel arbors. Single bushes often reached 10 feet tall and wide.
“People think of rose gardens being very formal in manicured rows,” Natalie Birk, Sacramento’s historical district manager, told The Bee in 2009. “But these roses are grown in their natural state. It’s unusual to see a garden of this magnitude in that way. And the smell is so much better than modern roses. The fragrance is unbelievable.”
Angelique Ashby, Sacramento’s mayor pro tem, lauded Mrs. Oliva’s efforts during a 2012 national conference hosted by the cemetery garden volunteers. During budgetary cutbacks at the city-owned cemetery, Mrs. Oliva and her volunteers found ways to keep their garden thriving.
“No matter what’s happening with the economy, we have beautiful roses for everyone to enjoy,” Ashby said. “Barbara Oliva embodies the best of Sacramento.”