Robert Black, at right, accepts the 2023 Samuel Ullman Award from the Japan-America Society for his work in the Japanese garden at Monte Sano State Park. Brian Hilson, at left, former CEO of Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and now with FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, is presenting the award to Black. CONTRIBUTED

Japan-America Society presents award to Robert Black

MADISON – Robert Black, an employee at Madison Hospital, has received the 2023 Samuel Ullman Award from the Japan-America Society.

The society recognized Black, who grew up on Monte Sano, for his vision for the Japanese Garden at Monte Sano State Park. Black followed through with his idea to create an authentic Japanese garden in 1988.

Since then, Black has worked with fervently to tend to the park’s specimens like Japanese maples, other plantings and symbolic structures. Black’s dedication has been a benefit to thousands of visitors annually.

At Madison Hospital, President Mary Lynne Wright said, “If you haven’t visited the Japanese Garden, you are missing a real treat and a hidden gem in North Alabama. Robert and his wife Anna, who also works at Madison Hospital, care deeply about our environment.” Black works in the Grounds Services Department and maintains the landscaping in the hospital’s 25-acre campus.

“Robert has a passion for all things that grow outdoors,” Wright said. “He will take what I might consider a throw-away plant and turn it into a bonsai, another one of his passions. His knowledge base is incredible, and his care for everything in our landscape is impressive.”

Brian Hilson, former CEO of Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and now with FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, grew up on Monte Sano like Black. Hilson presented the award to Black at the Japan-America Society dinner and said that Black’s story is “one that demonstrates what brings out the best in people — what good people do to serve others.”

Creation of the Japanese Garden led to its first Spring Festival in 1992, followed by construction of the original tea house, rock garden, traditional Japanese bridges and a performing arts stage by 1993.

“Robert personally invested countless hours, not only in design but in manual labor to build and maintain everything,” Hilson said. “He did this detailed and hard work by hand.”

Unfortunately, Black’s personal health issues required that he limit his garden work. Between 2008 and 2016, the garden had no maintenance and fell into disrepair. In 2016, the state park manager asked Black to either repair or remove the Japanese Garden.

“Robert, along with then Consul General Shinozuka, Honorary Consul General Jackson and Kozo Matsuda, who over the years has served as project advisor, recognized the garden’s importance and that it must be restored,” Hilson said.

Students in the Japanese Culture Club at the University of Alabama in Huntsville helped to complete the work. Those students continue with maintenance and renamed it, “North Alabama Japanese Garden,” Hilson said.

Individuals and companies, like Toyota and Toray, sponsored the restoration. Kato-San, Abbot of Yakushiji Temple in Nara, Japan, was commissioned to create the park’s entrance sign.

For more information, visit Facebook/North Alabama Japanese Garden.

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