MANSFIELD — Usually, members of the Mansfield Men’s Garden Club aren’t very good at keeping secrets.

Yet they managed to surprise Jim Kulig during the club’s annual beautification awards ceremony Tuesday night.

After awarding each honor listed in the program, grade club president Doug Versaw lingered at the microphone. He told the crowd there was one last honor to present.

Then he invited Kulig up to receive the first Jim Kulig Community Champion Award.

Versaw said the club wanted to recognize community members whose contributions go above and beyond regular beautification efforts. It hopes to make it an annual award going forward;

“We try to make (Mansfield) a beautiful place and Jim has been the hardest-working guy you could find,” Versaw said. “When we came up with an idea for this award, he was the one. It had to be (named) after Jim.”

Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker presented Kulig with a proclamation declaring Sept. 5, 2023, as Jim Kulig Day.

“Jim, you you do so much for this community so much for Mansfield. Every time I turn around, I see you planting or doing something with flowers or the (North End Community Improvement Collaborative’s) urban farm,” Theaker said. “There wouldn’t be a better person to award this to.”

Jim Huffman said he’s known Kulig through the men’s garden club for 10 years, but had no idea how much he accomplished until he began research for the award.

“I got phone calls from judges, people he’s worked with in the past and heads of organizations now, they all said the same thing,” Huffman said. “Nobody deserves it more.”

Nurturing plants and people

Kulig moved to Mansfield with his wife Jean 55 years ago. He worked for a few years at the Ohio State Reformatory, then took a job with a counseling agency called Family Services of North Central Ohio. He was promoted to director in just two years.

Kulig guided the agency through a merger with the Richland County Mental Health Association in 1975. He remained at the helm as chief executive officer for “The Center,” now known as Catalyst Life Services, and oversaw the development of its current facility.

He spent the last 25 years of his career as the Richland County Juvenile Court administrator under now-retired Judge Ron Spon. He also also served as chairman of the board for Richland County Children’s Services.

“Everybody’s responsible for their own life,” he said. “My job in part was assisting other people to create opportunities for themselves, so that they can make some choices.”

Kulig said the most rewarding part of his career was watching clients realize their own potential.

“Everybody has strengths and everybody has the capacity to change,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t believe that in themselves, but it’s there.

“I have a firm belief in never giving up. If you cheerlead folks to do things that are meaningful for them and their lives and see others never give up, it makes it worthwhile.”

Even in retirement, Kulig stays busy with gardening and community service.

He’s a member of the Mansfield America in Bloom committee and vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Richland County board. NAMI Richland gave Kulig a Lifetime Mental Health Service Award in 2017.

For about six years, Kulig worked alongside teens in the UMADAOP’s S.A.L.T. (Student Achievement Leadership Training) program, doing outdoor beautification for Mansfield in Bloom.

“He’s all heart and he gives of himself,” his wife Jean said. “He always has. I love that about him.”

Gardening since age five

Kulig joined the garden club 10 years ago upon his retirement, but his passion for gardening took root much earlier.

Kulig’s father served in the military during World War II. As a result, Kulig and his mother lived with his grandparents during his early childhood years.

“My grandfather was a gardener. As long as I can remember, I remember working hand in hand with him in his garden,” Kulig said.

“Any childhood pictures were usually with him in his garden. I just loved the soil, loved my grandpa and spent most of my moments outside.”

Today, Kulig does his gardening alongside his wife on their 2-acre property.

“Both of us grew up in the city of Detroit, the houses were within arm’s distance of each other, so to live in the country and have lots of room has been a real treat for us,” he said.

Their garden boasts a variety of trees, bushes, shrubs and flowers. Kulig’s favorites are the daisies.

Urban farms, DECA Manufacturing honored for beautification

The Mansfield Men’s Garden Club also recognized various organizations and residents for their beautification efforts throughout the region.

DECA Manufacturing received a commercial award for the landscaping outside its building.

Daniel Neef of Green Patch Gardens and Vincent Owens of Fulfillment Micro Farms accepted an award on behalf of the North End Community Improvement Collaborative’s urban farm.

Bridgewater and Tower Lakes were recognized for the beautiful landscaping throughout their communities.

Elvin Burnell was the Mansfield Men’s Garden Club award winner.

Burnell and his wife Linda reside on nearly 4 1/2 acres. Their expansive garden includes about 2,500 manicured shrubs.

“It really is a tremendous amount of work, but a tremendous source of pride for him,” said Burnell’s daughter, Brigette. “I don’t know of another private home where the the owner does their own work that looks like that.”

Burnell, a retired industrial engineer, has been gardening for decades.

“A mutual friend encouraged me to join the garden club. It took off of there,” he said. “It’s relaxing, you kind of forget about other things and just take care of the plants.”

His interest in gardening has rubbed off on other members of the family. His son and grandson now help him maintain the sprawling display.

“He used to do all of the work, but he’s 85 now,” Brigette said.

“I’ll go over there and he’s crawling around on his hands and knees, pulling weeds and dividing day lilies and dividing hostas. It’s crazy, but I think it’s kept him young.”

Brigette was among the evening’s residential beautification award winners.

“I feel like it’s also a recognition of the legacy from my dad and all he does,” she said. “It’s nice to be honored the same night that he is.”

The other residential winners were Tom and Joyce Brennan, Mary Dukich, Doug Gentille, Sieda and Bryce Hill, Don and Sarah Morris, Tang Ott, Mary Petty, Brad and Karen Smith, Jill Squires, Gary and Judith Stroup, Margie Travis and Bob and Dee Vail.

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Staff reporter at Richland Source since 2019. I focus on education, housing and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. Got a tip? Email me at