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Barbara Lukes Collins turned her green thumb and Morton College journalism training into an educational career.
The 1968 Morton College graduate is the author of two books on plants and presents programs for garden clubs and community groups across the country. Collins, who went by her maiden name of Lukes at Morton College, also taught horticultural classes for 20-plus years as an adjunct faculty member at the College of DuPage as well as community service programs at the Morton Arboretum, Chicago Botanical Gardens and area garden centers.
You name it, Collins can talk about it. Roses, hydrangeas, ornamental grasses, perennials, rain gardens, herbal treats, landscaping herbs and professional interior spacing (the subject of her second book) all are topics Collins will dazzle budding gardeners.
Collins’ background in teaching and journalism also have proven to be perfect fits in growing her horticultural career. She also was a bit of a promoter at Morton College, which also has proven handy.
The Oak Brook resident was involved reviving a group at Morton College called “Panthers Roar,” which had been inactive until Collins got involved.
“We put on mixers, made the big hoops with tissue paper that the football team ran through before home games,” Collins recalled. “We did a trade-off with Joe Mantegna’s band, The Apocryphals, to play at our mixers. Our goal was to be a real social activity center.”
The Pioneer yearbook called the 1967 homecoming parade as one of the longest in Morton Junior College history. The pre-journalism major also was the Collegian’s features editor, Women’s Club president and Panthers’ Roar secretary.
The list of people Collins met on the ground floor at Morton College eventually ran the gamut of the entertainment and political worlds. She remembers being in English class with Mantegna, star of CBS’ hit show, “Criminal Minds.”
Collins was on the costume crew for Morton College’s production of a play of which Mantegna was cast in a starring role.
“We all knew who he was,” Collins recalled. “He looked the part and acted the part. We all knew he was on his way.”
The late Judy Baar Topinka, who went on to mount an unsuccessful run for governor in Illinois against Rod Blagojevich, was Collins’ boss when she wrote the “MJC Spotlight” column for the Berwyn-Cicero LIFE Newspapers.
“I felt like a local celebrity when people from the community came up to me and said that they although it was a college column, they thoroughly enjoyed reading it,” Collins said.
Former LIFE publisher Jack Kubik wrote Collins a letter, suggesting when she completed her education to contact the newspaper for a job.
Her interest in journalism stemmed from her uncle, Carl Sotir, who rose to become associate managing editor during a 33-year career at the Chicago Tribune. Sotir was the first in his family to graduate from college and he served as a role model for Collins.
No discussion of growing up in the area during the 1960s would be complete without mentioning where you were during the “Blizzard of ’67,” which dropped 23 inches of snow over a two-day period in January. Collins remembers Morton College, located at the time on the third floor of Morton East High School, closing in the morning.
“Nobody had a car,” Collins said. “We walked home. I remember walking down 22nd Street (Cermak Road to Oak Park Avenue back home to Stickney.”
Collins grew up in Stickney on the 3900 block of Wesley Avenue and attended the now-closed St. Pius X School in the village. Tuition was $2 per month with a discount available for those with multiple family members attending. It was even cheaper to attend Morton College, which didn’t charge tuition at the time.
Education was emphasized in her home.
“My parents stressed education,” Collins said. “They felt it was something you couldn’t take away.”
Her interest in horticulture started at a young age. She assisted her father with his garden, while Collins’ mother mixed herbs and flowers among the vegetables. They’d grow dill for the Bohemian pickles and chives to go with the horseradish.
“Gardening is something I’ve done all my life,” Collins said. “I taught my kids about gardening like my mom and dad taught me. You have to have a passion in life. You don’t go back for a degree in horticulture without loving it.”
Collins didn’t go back for her master’s degree in horticulture until she was 50. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Pestalozzi-Froeble College in Chicago and taught at Burnham School in Cicero.
Her first book, “Landscaping Herbs,” was part of her master’s thesis at the University of Illinois. It’s consider a must-have for any savvy gardener.
“I always wanted to get my master’s,” Collins said. “I wanted to be a specialist in horticulture. It was a wonderful program that really tested my intelligence. It was a chance for me to get back to my writing. I really learned a lot. It was a great accomplishment to get it done.”
Collins was an Illinois State Scholar and honors student in math and science at Morton West High School. She had her choice of colleges, but selected Morton College.
“Morton West and Morton College worked together,” Collins said. “I was able to enter Morton College with college credit in math and science. Morton College had a great reputation and great professors.
“I just decided I wasn’t going to go away for my first two years. I got my basic classes out of the way and received a quality education. I also was able to work my part-time job.”
Not only did Collins reap the benefit of a Morton College education, but so did her brother and sister.
“We got a great education at Morton College,” Collins recalled. “All three of us got bachelor’s and master’s degrees. You can’t get better than that.”
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