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Poppenhusen’s aging angel worries about garden work

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Pegen, the 92-year-old "Gardening Angel" of College Point, is the reason the Poppenhusen Triangle blossoms year after year.

Ever since she was in her 40s, Pegen, a German immigrant, has taken it upon herself to plant, weed, trim, cut and cultivate the small garden around the monument to Conrad Poppenhusen, the German-born benefactor of College Point who founded the nation's first free kindergarten.

"Gardening has kept me very young," she said. "I never thought I'd reach 92."

She has since outlived her sister, brother and husband, who once worked on the garden with her.

"She attributes that to working with the earth, being active and outside," said Susan Brustmann, director of the nearby Poppenhusen Institute. "She feeds the birds everyday."

Pegen's relationship with the plant and animal life in College Point, long and storied, is one that is increasingly threatened by her aging.

"I don't know how long I can keep doing it," she said. As she sat outside the park on College Point Boulevard Monday morning, she complained of a pain in her upper leg and hip that prevents her from being able to work as hard as she used to.

"It seems the doctor can't help me," she said.

With Brustmann taking the lead, the community and city Parks Department has begun meeting to determine how the flora of the monument will live on.

Pegen has been working without much help for the past few years, with the exception of one neighbor who cuts the lawn.

"We don't want her work to be in vain," Brustmann said.

Brustmann believes the Parks Department, with the assistance of local community organizations and churches, will continue to maintain the grounds.

"The pine trees that are there now," Pegen said, "I planted them when they were about 3 feet high. Two men who came with me to buy them from the Parks Department, they made no effort to pay - I paid."

The story is a reflection of her entire relationship with the park.

Every growth in the garden can be attributed to her. Even the pigeons wait there for their daily feeding, which she obtains from the leftover bread from dinners at the senior center. During the holiday season, she buys poinsettias and leaves them around the monument with a wreath.

"I did the weeding in the front a couple of days ago," she said, motioning to the completely weed-free rows of marigolds at the tip of the triangle.

"In May I plant all the flowers," she said. "As a child, I did the gardening in my own garden in Germany."

It is that strong connection to Germany that prompts Pegen to keep in touch with Poppenhusen's relatives through letter-writing and visitation.

"Some of the Poppenhusen descendants have been here to visit me from Germany," she said proudly in her own thick, brusque German accent. "I had a pet squirrel and I was sitting on the porch, laying on my couch and the squirrel was laying on my neck and a lady walked in and said, 'I'm Poppenhusen from Germany.'"

Visits like those keep her inspired. Just last week, the students of PS 129 honored her with a $500 donation. The sign at the entrance of the park reads "Our Gardening Angel, Betty Pegen."

Yet still, she sadly admits she will not be able to tend to the tiny piece of greenspace in the continually developing neighborhood of College Point forever.

"I just wish people would appreciate it more," she said. "I see God in all the flowers I pick, even in some of the weeds."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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