Butterflies and plants at Honor Heights Park’s Papilion have someone new to help care for them.
Katherine Coburn started in September as the Papilion’s operations manager.
She said she’s ready to take on the new position with enthusiasm.
“With this new position, you have a clean palette or slate, just an open book for you to plan things and organize things. To be creative,” Coburn said. “Plus, it’s a lovely place to come to work. Many people don’t know where the place is, or they only came out for its opening. But it’s just beautiful. The garden is full and will be open through the first weekend in November, weather permitting.”
The Papilion, which opened earlier this year, features a butterfly house, a collection of gardens of various types and a lawn where people can gather. Coburn, 59, said she works with an assistant manager and a horticulturist/zoologist, who tends to the butterflies and garden beds.
“I had been newly appointed to the Friends of Honor Heights Park Board, and through them, I knew this position was out there,” she said.
Coburn comes to the new position with ample experience of helping things grow and thrive. The New Jersey native earned a degree in nursing from the University of Tennessee. Around that time, she met Jerry Coburn, a young optometry student.
“The closest school of optometry at the time was in Memphis,” she said. “I lived in an apartment under his.”
After moving to Muskogee, Katherine Coburn spent 30 years as a nurse. She also found time to participate in her children’s schools. She served two years as president of the Education Foundation of Muskogee.
She has two grown sons. A daughter, Mallory Paige Coburn, died of leukemia as a child.
Katherine Coburn is no stranger to beautiful gardens.
“Ever since I was a young adult, I had been a home gardener,” she said. “There was a lot of trial and error, but I really enjoyed it.”
Coburn improved her gardening skills through the Muskogee County Master Gardener program and the Linnaeus Teaching Gardens at Woodward Park in Tulsa.
The Linnaeus Garden, like the Master Gardener program, teaches people details about good gardening, she said. Master Gardener is offered through the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension.
She listed such skills as “basic botany, soil, trees, annuals, perennials, entomology, fertilizers.”
“It just encompasses all of what horticulture is,” she said. “It doesn’t make you an expert in it, but it makes you a little more knowledgeable and informed. It gives you a foundation to work from.”
She said working in a garden is energizing, healing and “a time for reflection.”
“When you’re working in a garden, you have a hand in helping creation,” she said. “You get to observe creation. It’s healing on lots of levels, healing on a physical level. In the Linnaeus Garden, I was talking to classmates, a number of them had had a personal loss, and it can be healing in that way.”
She said her problems seem to go away when she gardens.
“You’re caring for a living thing,” she said. “They have cycles. They have great varieties. All plants have different personalities, light requirements, soil requirements, different textures.”
Coburn’s interest in education runs in her family.
“Education is valued in our home,” she said. “Every parent should value education for their children.”
She said her parents came from an educated family.
“My grandmother even went to college,” Coburn said. “She was probably born in the late 1800s or early 1900s. They all went to college.”
Coburn’s two sons went to Muskogee Public Schools their entire public school careers. Mallory made it to first grade at Tony Goetz before she died.
Coburn got involved in her children’s schools, taking part in parent-teacher groups.
“You get to know your child’s teachers,” she said. “You can help your child with their learning if they are having problems. You get to know your child’s classmates. Those children are really respectful to other parents who come to their classroom.
Such involvement led her to the Education Foundation of Muskogee, which raises funds for MPS programs. She said she was asked to join the Foundation and served two years as its president.
During that time, the Trivia Night fundraiser started, she said.
“It was actually something at the high school,” she said. “They needed help, and I saw its potential. It could be something larger. We pulled it out of the high school cafeteria to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame Depot. It became a big event, a big fundraiser for the Education Foundation.”
The foundation presents grants to outstanding school programs. The Mallory Paige Coburn Award is given to the top-ranked elementary project. The title has been bittersweet for Coburn.
“When it was first established, it would bring memories up fresh,” she said. “But over time, your grief heals, it becomes more part of you. Now it’s more a feeling maybe of being proud of who she was.”
A short life
A wood carving of Mallory occupies the entrance of the Papilion’s Butterfly House.
The statue was carved from a tree that had died in the Honor Heights arboretum, Coburn said.
“The Parks and Recreation Department wanted to do something with it,” she said. “Director Mark Wilkerson approached us if it can be a memorial donation at the park.”
“The idea was a little girl carrying flowers,” she said.
It originally was located at the park. The carving was vandalized, but later restored.
“Then the weather and wood boring bees were not kind to it,” she said. After several more refurbishing efforts, the carving was moved to Tony Goetz Elementary School.
Mallory was 3 1/2 when she was diagnosed with leukemia, Coburn said.
“Her brother Zach was a bone marrow donor for her,” she recalled.
“She was a tough girl,” Coburn said. “She had treatment for four years and had lots of ups and downs. She was real stubborn. She didn’t want to have treatment. She relapsed six times. Her little body went through a lot.”
Youngest son Alex was 6 weeks old when she died, Coburn said.
“It was a very intense time,” she said.
When the Papilion was built, officials asked to relocate the carving inside the butterfly house.
“We always felt she should be here,” Coburn said. “It was originally donated to the park. It’s out of the weather and protected.”
Coburn said she finds comfort when she sees the carving, as if the girl is greeting visitors.
“It’s very comforting,” Coburn said. “There’s a sweetness about it. She’s in a safe place where there is a lot of beauty.”
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?
“I fell in love with someone from Muskogee. We got married and came here.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?
“I like that there is not a whole lot of traffic. Wonderful people live here. It’s small enough, if you want to make a difference, you can.”
WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?
“More job opportunities for younger people, and if people would clean up their properties. It would make a more attractive town — pride in ownership.”
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?
Operations Manager for the Papilion at Honor Heights Park.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
“Besides my hobbies, my husband is a great cook, so we have lovely dinners and share a nice bottle of wine. I also have the above with my close circle of friends.”
WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?
“All of the strong and intelligent women I know — and they know who they are. I see characteristics in them I want to emulate.”
WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?
“The birth of my children.”
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?
“A small town with a rich history.”
Meet Katherine Coburn
HOMETOWN: Woodbury, N.J. Lived in Muskogee since 1979.
CAREER: Operations manager at the Papilion. Spent 30 years as a nurse.
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science in Nursing, University of Tennessee, 1977.
FAMILY: Husband, Jerry. Sons, Zach and Alex, two grandchildren. Daughter, Mallory died in 1992.
CHURCH: Grace Episcopal.
HOBBIES: Cooking, reading, walking, yoga. “I’m a member of the fitness center.”