Catherine Hull; acclaimed as gardener, beloved as person

Catherine Hull with her husband, Harry, at their home, the Uplands, in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Catherine Hull with her husband, Harry, at their home, the Uplands, in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / June 20, 2011

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“Rock gardening is a spell,’’ Catherine Hull wrote in a 1995 issue of Arnoldia, the Arnold Arboretum magazine. “If you succumb to it, there is seldom any turning aside from the passionate love of small wild things. There is no point pontificating or preaching — it swoops you up or it leaves you cold.’’

It definitely swooped up Mrs. Hull. Prepared to start a garden in her new home, the Uplands, in Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1967, she found the 5 acres contained solid granite and desiccated sand. “My only previous gardening experience had been in backyards, but here one thrust of a shovel and CLANG — a rock,’’ she wrote.

Margot Parrot, a longtime friend from Scarborough, Maine, had the answer for Mrs. Hull during a visit. “I think it was that little flower growing out of a rock,’’ Parrot recalled. “It was an alpine poppy. Orange. I can see it now in my mind’s eye. Katrink [as she was called] always thought that was what got her started.’’

Mrs. Hull joined the American Rock Garden Society and, through the years, she won “every prize for her garden that was available,’’ Parrot said.

A passionate horticulturist and a member of the Trustees of Reservations preservation group, Mrs. Hull died of cancer on May 22 at her Manchester home. She was 88.

She was the widow of Retired Rear Admiral Harry Hull and a descendant of presidents John and John Quincy Adams.

People, Places & Plants magazine included Mrs. Hull among its “50 most influential gardeners in the Northeast.’’ She wrote many articles for horticultural periodicals, often laced with self-effacing humor, and she was asked to judge many of the country’s top-rated flower shows.

At one time, she served as a member of the visiting committee for the Arnold Arboretum.

“Katrink’s work was indispensable to the arboretum,’’ professor Peter Ashton, who ran the arboretum for Harvard, said in a phone interview from England. “When my wife and I came to the US in 1978, the arboretum had gone through some difficult years. Katrink took to improving it. Hers was a huge legacy.’’

At home, Mrs. Hull was busy “transforming Uplands into an award-winning woodland garden, renowned for its long tufa bed and granite ledges replete with alpine plants from many parts of the world,’’ said her son, Harry III of Costa Rica.

“My mother had a lively, inquisitive mind about almost anything,’’ he said. “She set high standards for us (and herself) but with remarkable tolerance. If, as a son, I had to pick her most important quality, it would be that the way she loved and lived her life never made us lose faith in ourselves.’’

Mrs. Hull had friends all over the world, said her daughter, L. Catherine A., known as Kata, of Wayland. “By the time we were of college ages and out of the house,’’ she said, “our parents would travel looking for alpine plants to the Dolomites, the mountain ranges in this country, and the Rockies, in Japan, and the mountains of Czechoslovakia and Alaska.’’

In 1981, Catherine said, her parents’ car was hit by a drunk driver. “It was a miracle they survived,’’ she said. “I think it renewed their zest for life.’’

“Mother always looked forward and didn’t dwell on the bad stuff. You soldiered on.’’

Louisa Catherine Adams Clement was born in Newburyport to Clarence Erskine and Bianca Cogswell Harrington Clement. On her father’s side, she was a direct descendant of the Adams presidents. During the Great Depression, she and her half-sister, Bianca Harrington, lived several years in Paris with their mother, then a widow. It gave Katrink a chance to become fluent in French, a language she maintained, along with Spanish and Italian.

She learned Spanish during a summer spent in Havana, during her junior year at Bryn Mawr. She graduated from there cum laude with a major in history in 1943. That same year, she married Harry Hull, an Annapolis graduate who would become a rear admiral. They had met at a debutante party in 1939 in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Hull was living with her mother. At her own coming-out party, she turned her gifts of money over to the British ambassador to support the British war effort.

Until the birth of their first child in 1945, Mrs. Hull worked for the Office of Strategic Services in San Francisco while her husband was serving on submarines in the Pacific.

In San Francisco, she met another war bride, Euphemia Steffey, now of Pittsburgh, starting a 70-year friendship. “Katrink drew people to her like a warm fire,’’ Steffey said. “She was such a welcoming person. Talk about a renaissance woman. She delighted in her domestic skills and was a competent seamstress. She made a quality chocolate. Beyond the domestic, the world wasn’t large enough to satisfy all her appetites, travel, books. We all have loads of friends, but you only have a handful that change your life. Katrink was one of mine.’’

In the course of Rear Admiral Hull’s naval career, the family lived on both the West and East coasts, in Hawaii in the early 1950s, and for three years in Naples, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he was assigned a tour of duty.

Another son, Kimball E.C. of Cambridge, recalled the friends his mother made in Italy, “as she did wherever she went.’’ As a boy, he recalled, he was embarrassed by her “haggling’’ at food markets in Naples until he realized the vendors expected that and were delighted. “I could see the vendor’s face light up. Mom delighted in people and was so good at making friends.’’

One summer in the mid-1950s, the family spent the season at Beverly Farms and “fell in love with Boston’s North Shore,’’ Harry said. “From then on, they lived in Manchester as often as they could.’’

When the rear admiral retired from the Navy in 1967, he and his wife purchased the Uplands in Manchester, which became the family seat.

From 1967 to 1977, her husband was director of the International Business Center of New England, dedicated to promoting world trade. He died in 2001. Mrs. Hull lived at the Uplands for 39 years before moving to another home in Manchester.

She was a member of the Adams Memorial Society and, Harry said, in 2007 donated several personal belongings of Louisa Catherine and John Quincy Adams to the museum collection. That same year, she donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society “a trove’’ of correspondence from John and John Quincy Adams that she had inherited.

Mrs. Hull also liked writing doggerel. Her children’s favorite is “Time Passing:’’

Is there anyone out there
Who can remember the color of our hair
When young?
Is there anyone under the sun
Who can hum the songs we hummed
At twenty-one?
There will be no one left who knows
How it was before we touched the moon

In addition to her daughter and two sons, Mrs. Hull leaves three grandsons and two granddaughters.

A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. Aug. 27 at St. John’s Episcopal Church at Beverly Farms.

Gloria Negri can be reached at