China’s Roses

China Altman

Photos by Howard Kang

Alumna’s Life Inspires Others

For journalist and activist China Altman (‘54), a good part of the past 26 years of her life has been spent on an unpaid job: tending to hundreds of roses in the historic Public Garden of Boston, Mass.

Altman founded and still leads the Rose Brigade, a group of volunteers who work a few hours every week to maintain the rose beds, noted as visual masterpieces. Thousands of visitors from this country and all over the world walk through this botanical garden in the heart of the city.

While her spirit and determination restored the formerly decrepit beds in the Public Garden, many aspects of Altman’s life are marked by her resilience and resolve. She has broken through barriers as the first female journalist for United Press International’s Boston bureau, become a lifelong activist for the equality of women and African Americans and stepped into the role as a national spokesperson for runaway and abused children.

The roses are a long way from Waycross, Ga., and Altman’s journey to Boston is nothing short of extraordinary.

At the age of 16, Mary Helen Altman was looking for a way to escape her troubled family life and Georgia Teachers College was the answer.

Even though she had neither applied to nor been admitted to the College, Altman was determined to register for classes. Her decision was gutsy, as were many other life choices: she got a ride from Waycross to her future in Statesboro.

“When I arrived on campus, I hid my small suitcase in the shrubbery, and went straight to the president’s office,” she said. For the next five hours, Altman sat in the reception area, waiting to meet the president, Zach Henderson. When she finally saw him, Altman told him that she could not go back home. “I told him that I needed to go to TC, and he could call my Methodist minister and my principal to verify who I was and validate my academic record.” Henderson sympathetically listened to her story, and then arranged for her admittance to the College.

As an undergraduate, Altman worked several jobs to support herself, was a reporter for The George-Anne and experienced a weekend that was historic for her. She was one of several students from various colleges who accepted an invitation to visit Paine College in Augusta, Ga. to discuss the racial situation.
“It was indescribable,” she said, about the evening she arrived as the only white student on the African-American campus.

According to Altman, she shared the same beliefs as her mother. “My mother was a very powerful influence on me. She believed in equality of the races, and in her time, that made her an unusual thinker,” she said. The weekend at Paine was her first activism for racial issues.

After earning her degree from Teachers College, Altman headed back to her hometown to raise money for her next venture by working as the society editor for the daily Waycross Journal-Herald. “I was in love with journalism,” she said, “and at the age of nine, I decided that I wanted to be a reporter.” In her early teens she decided to change her name as a strategy she realized later was her first feminist activism. She knew hard news stories mailed or telegraphed under a female-sounding name could meet with kneejerk rejection by most editors of the time.

“I wanted a name that would not reveal my gender. I thought if editors were confused by my byline, they would consider my reporting on its merit.”

After several months at the Journal-Herald, Altman left to attend graduate school at the University of Missouri, where she sought out a job as an assistant

in the office of the dean of the journalism school. While working there, she had the opportunity to meet many influential editors and famous journalists. So, true to form, Altman made a bold move.

“During my second year, I wrote letters to some of the editors I met — from the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune to the UPI — and told them they should hire me,” she said. “Earl Johnson, the president of UPI at the time, said I was a gutsy kid and had sent him a gutsy letter. He told me to come to Boston,” she said. “I was a romantic, idealistic and driven kid and I wanted to go for the prize,” she added. She was the first female reporter to work in the Boston bureau of United Press, which became United Press International (UPI) a few months later. Not too long after she arrived she had a key role covering the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1956.

“The bureau chief sent me to Coast Guard headquarters, where the signals were coming in, and I got there before any other reporters. I persuaded them to let me go inside the ship to shore communications room, before it was closed to the other reporters who arrived later. I was able to phone in updates to the bureau. The UPI got the scoop first when the ship went under,” she revealed.

After achieving success in Boston, Altman was transferred to UPI’s London bureau to work on Fleet Street where she covered stories ranging from the royal family to Parliament to demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa. “Journalism was in its heyday, and this was the biggest bureau that UPI had in the world, covering stories not only in England, but in Africa and Europe,” she said. “I was a free spirit,” said Altman, about her travels around the world.

What followed was a year of living in Rome where she began freelancing for UPI and was sent on her biggest wire service story. At that time President Jack Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy had been on a triumphal diplomatic mission to Paris and Vienna. At its conclusion Mrs. Kennedy went on vacation in the Greece islands and Altman was sent to Greece to cover her. Later she spent a year behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest, Hungary.

After returning to the U.S., Altman’s career headed in yet another direction when she began freelancing for Life and other magazines. In the 1960s, Altman’s self-described “spirit and guts” came into play when she spent several months delving into the world of organized crime. Her extensive interviews with some of the most dangerous members of Boston’s crime families and the gangland wars were published by Life magazine.

During this period in Boston, she hosted a television series on WGBH, was the first woman on the East Coast to have her own radio call-in talk show and also worked as People magazine’s first Boston bureau chief. In the 1980s, she became MIT’s first director of communication for the arts and was instrumental in founding the Office for the Arts there.

From the 1960s onward to now Altman worked as an activist in her free time, becoming more and more focused on animal rights and environmental issues.

While at MIT she began volunteering in the Public Garden which had fallen on hard times. Under the auspices of the Friends of the Public Garden, she first led a group of volunteers who cleaned up the Garden, and then founded the Rose Brigade in 1988 to care for the four languishing rose beds.

“When I first came to Boston a long time ago, the whole city was the first place I ever felt at home, and the Public Garden was the place I loved most,” she said.

One of her first actions was to name the beds: Ether, Tiffany, Mr. Hale and Mr. Lincoln. “I’ve always liked naming things, and I thought the names of these beds should be appropriate to history,” she added. “The Tiffany bed has a large number of Tiffany roses in it, and is across the street from the historic Arlington Church, which has Tiffany windows in it. The Ether bed is close to the monument commemorating the first use of ether to bring peace from pain, and, in this bed we have mostly the roses called “Peace,” and quite a few examples of roses hybridized from Peace.

“The twin beds,” she added, are named Mr. Hale — for statesman and philosopher Edward Everett Hale — and Mr. Lincoln, for our former president.”

For more than two decades, she and the dedicated members of the Rose Brigade work for nearly nine months every year to meticulously care for the roses. “As important as what we do is that we are seen to do it,” said Altman about the volunteers that range from local college students to businessmen and even visiting tourists. “I never dreamed that taking care of the roses would turn into what it has.”

While Altman’s botanical work is public, her private work is focused on activism for animal rights, creating assemblages as an unknown artist and writing poetry and her memoirs. “I’ve been hesitant about writing my life story but now I think I almost have enough courage,” she said. – Mary Beth Spence

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