Large and colorful, rhododendrons are “pretty spectacular,” says retired U-M math prof Peter Hinman. But “they’re not really native to this climate, and that means that there’s a fair attrition rate over the years.”

Attrition has been a headache for the local chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, too. Founded more than thirty years ago by longtime math department chair Don Lewis and his wife, Carolyn Dana Lewis, at its peak it had thirty or forty members. But members fell away, and at the end of 2016, its president, Jan Grichor, announced its demise.

Carolyn Lewis died last spring. Afterward, Grichor donated almost all of the chapter’s money to two of Lewis’s favorite nonprofits.

She did so just as other former members were trying to revive the group. They say they succeeded–and now they’re asking for the money back.

The dispute has sowed anger among the “rhodies,” as both the flowers and their gardeners are known. And it’s left the other nonprofits embarrassed and confused.

The May rhododendron sale was always a highlight of the club’s calendar. “We had a connection with a commercial grower in the west side of the state,” Hinman says, who was glad to clear out plants unsold the previous year at a bargain price. The “rhodies” were glad to get them. “Rhododendrons tend to be pretty expensive when you buy them at a nursery,” Hinman explains. When he and his late wife were putting theirs in, “they tended to be in the forty-dollar range in a nursery, and we were selling them for eight or ten dollars.”

Carolyn Lewis was the founding president, but the sales were organized and hosted by Grichor. She was “a very important member of the organization,” Hinman says, noting that “it is usually like pulling teeth to get anybody to agree to take any responsibility.”

In 2011, at Grichor’s suggestion, the chapter set aside $1,500 for a bench in the Arboretum honoring Carolyn Lewis. Grichor agreed to follow up on the project. A year later, when then-president Bonnie Ion resigned to go to Africa with the Peace Corps, she agreed to take over the presidency, too.

The bench plan was shelved, Grichor emails, when “[w]e discovered that honorary benches in the Arboretum cost more than $4000.” Much more importantly, she adds, “Carolyn was adamantly against the idea.”

The founding members were growing old–Don Lewis died in 2015–and the chapter declined with them. In December 2016, Grichor sent an email announcing that since no one had “stepped forward to take on the positions of president, VP, membership or treasurer … the chapter will be defunct at the end of 2016.” She later submitted an IRS form saying the chapter had ceased operations in 2015.

There things stood until early this year, when Ion and her husband Patrick (another mathematician) emailed an old group list to see who might be interested in getting back together.

“It was bothering me that the rhododendron chapter had disappeared, the plant sales were done and all those nice people who we had had contact with were gone to the four winds,” Bonnie Ion emails. “And there had always been around $6000 or $7000 in the treasury too. What had happened to it?”

The Ions’ email got a good response–including a message from Grichor. She said that she was in Florida and asked that they put off meeting until June so she could attend. Which they did.

Carolyn Lewis died in April. In May, Grichor emailed some former members. “I wanted to let you know that there will be about $1600 left in the treasury dedicated for the initiation to start the new chapter,” she wrote. “Before Carolyn died this year, she expressed interest in having the money that was in our chapter’s treasury donated to the Bird Center of Washtenaw and Wild Ones, the native plant society. I am following her wishes. If anyone has an objection I will be happy to listen to it.”

Hinman and others did object–but by then, Grichor already had written a check to the Bird Center for $5,000 and another to the Wild Ones for $1,000.

Grichor and her husband, retired engineering prof Ron Gibala, came to the June meeting. “She set out to defend what she’d done, by saying it was what Carolyn wanted, and we should do what Carolyn wanted,” Hinman recalls. “When she was told we didn’t all agree with that and that we thought she had basically stolen the money from the organization, she basically got up and stomped out.”

“I made these donations in good faith with the confidence that the donations’ intent would be met,” Grichor responds by email. “Since I was the sole remaining individual that could sign a check to donate money, I had every legal right to donate the money to organizations that Carolyn loved.”

But when a nonprofit goes out of business, any remaining funds are supposed to be spent to advance its mission, not to support its founder’s favorite causes. And others believe that Grichor gave away the money prematurely: the Ann Arbor chapter, they say, had never ceased to exist.

American Rhododendron Society district director John Golab agrees. While the chapter “became inactive, they had not followed the procedure to totally disband,” he says. “They were never off the books.”

Because Grichor’s donations were not “done according to national standards,” Golab says, “we sent letters to both nonprofits–to the responsible individuals–and told them the checks should be returned.”

Neither did so. In a phone interview, Wild Ones president Andrea Matthies and treasurer James O’Dell–who are married–say the group spent the $1,000 photocopying materials about an invasive grass. “We accepted it in good faith,” they said. “Why are we being sullied?”

The rhodies thought they had every right to the money. They were outraged–and re-energized. At the June meeting, they elected Patrick Ion president, Hinman treasurer, and Bonnie Ion secretary.

Ion emails that she and the other new officers consulted a nonprofit lawyer. She advised them “that Jan’s actions were technically legal” because she was authorized to sign checks and hadn’t taken the money for herself.

The lawyer suggested they write the Michigan Attorney General Charities Division. Ion says a “well-spoken young man” from that office called to say “that Jan’s actions were definitely reprehensible and not proper BUT the AG’s office would not start any proceedings against her since she did not take the money personally.”

That left the group in a bind. “We have to have some working capital,” says Hinman, the treasurer. “When we order plants from the nursery we get them from, we have to pay for them. We have to be able to pay the occasional speaker’s travel expenses, occasionally for coffee and donuts at a meeting; we have to have a little bit of money.”

As the Observer went to press, it seemed that they might soon have some. Hinman says he was told that the Bird Center had written the rhododendron society a check for $5,000. But instead of mailing it to him, they’d sent it to Grichor.

Grichor didn’t forward it. Asked why, she emails that there is “no legal relationship” between the chapter that wrote the checks and the one that asked for their return.

“The check was held because the Bird Center was apparently intimidated by threats” from the new leaders, she writes–a decision they were reconsidering with “correct information they did not have when they returned the contribution.”

In a follow-up phone call, a reporter shared Golab’s comments about the chapter never disbanding and the ARS asking the groups to return the money. Asked if that information changed her mind, Grichor replied, “Absolutely not.”

Bonnie Ion says the chapter is moving ahead. “We will have a plant sale in May of 2020 and we will see how it all goes,” she emails. “Life goes on.”

from Calls and Letters, November 2019

To the Observer:
I was the treasurer of the Ann Arbor Rhododendron Society​ [“The War of the Rhodies,” October​]​ ​up until  June 17, 2019. On the 19th of June I met with Patrick Ion at Comerica Bank in Canton to remove my name from the account and the bank added his name as signer and new President.

The bylaws of the Society stated that the Treasurer is the one tasked with signing checks. Only in the absence of the treasurer should another board member sign any checks. Furthermore, I had stated my objection to Jan Grichor spending funds for purposes other than to advance the local chapter.

Sending money to organizations that have nothing to do with the local chapter’s mission was inappropriate, especially given the fact that new members were emerging to activate the chapter.
Scott Koll