Francis Joseph LeClair

A black and white photograph of Francis Joseph LeClair.

(21 June 1884 – 11 November 1973)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) has cataloged about 100 vascular plant specimens collected by Francis J. LeClair. Without doubt more will be found as cataloging of collections continues.

LeClair collected specimens throughout the southeastern United States, especially in Bay Minette (Baldwin County, Alabama), Gulfport (Hancock County, Mississippi), and Chapel Hill (Orange County, North Carolina).  Many specimens document the plants grown and tested at Mason Farm for use in landscaping. This area is now the Mason Farm Biological Preserve, owned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

LeClair’s specimens are not widely distributed.  NCU holds the majority of his collections.  Other herbaria curating his specimens include Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT; originally in SMU), Field Museum (F), and New York Botanical Garden (NY).

F. J. LeClair, Horticulturist and Landscape Architect
by J. R. Massey

Francis J. LeClair was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1884 and graduated from the State School of Horticulture near Brussels in 1904. He emigrated to the United States in 1905 and worked for some years in the Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. areas.

In 1934 he was sent to North Carolina by the Department of Agriculture, and was hired in 1935 as a Landscape Gardener by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked for a time under the guidance of Dr. William Chambers Coker, and after Dr. Coker’s death in 1953, became Director of Grounds. Mr. LeClair retired in 1959 after twenty-five years at the University. He died November 11, 1973 at the age of 89.

To honor this renowned horticulturist and landscape architect, whose labor, love and skill added so measurably to the interest and beauty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, friends established the Francis J. LeClair Award. This award is given annually to an outstanding graduating senior for academic excellence in biology with an emphasis in plant sciences.

Recipients of the Francis J. LeClair Award
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

1974 Sandra B. Prather
1975 Marilyn C. Feldstein
1976 Leslie C. Tolley
1977 Richard L. Blanton
1978 Alan S. Weakley
1979 Claire M. McCall
1980 David F. McCain
1981 Frances Trail
1982 Steven H. Doares
1983 Timothy D. McDowell
1984 Sheila Reneau Ward
1985 Laura A. Buchanan
1986 Elizabeth A. Dickerson
1987 Randall S. Faircloth
1988 Gregory D. Goins
1989 Douglas B. Clark
1990 James W. Britt
1991 Rebecca A. Reed
1992 Susan L. Minneimeyer
1993 Richard C. Moore & Brian R. Kreiser
1994 Heather L. Griffins
1995 Christine C. Muth
1996 Rachel A. Harden
1998 Terri A. Long
2000 Robert I. McDonald & Amanda A. Mack
2002 Allison Jennifer Tuell
2003 Lisa Giencke
2004 Daniel McGlinn
2005 Megan Mailloux
2007 Jessica E. Long
2008  Elizabeth Marx
2009  Joseph Poythress Quentin Read
2010  Jessica Rose Bowerman
2011  Iris Chen
2012  Briana Whitaker
2013  Jordan Preuss
2014  Susan Deans
2015  Robert Kevan Schoonover
2016  Emily Jennings
2017  Leah Johnson
2018  Patrick Winner
2019  Hannah Medford
2020  Aubrey W. Knier

Francis Joseph LeClair, A Life of Hollies and Horticulture
By William R. Burk, 26 November 2001

Francis J. LeClair had an important role in beautifying the University of North Carolina campus, known for its attractiveness and diversity of shrubs and trees.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 21, 1884, Francis Joseph LeClair attended the State School of Horticulture near Brussels. He graduated in 1904 and emigrated to the United States the following year. Initially, he worked in nurseries in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and New York. He was then hired by the United States Government to fill various roles. While working with the United States Soil Conservation Service, he headed for North Carolina in the early 1930s where his new responsibilities included selecting grasses to control soil erosion in coastal areas. First appointed as a landscape gardener at UNC around 1939, LeClair later became University landscape architect. Honing his skills and love of horticulture at Carolina, he officially retired on 7 November 1957.

For the campus plantings, he chose shrubs and trees that offered seasonal interest throughout the year. Evergreens especially were included in his plantings to evoke cheerfulness in the winter months and soften the coldness of large stone and brick buildings throughout the year. Of the evergreens used, LeClair grew over 120 varieties of hollies, many of them planted on the UNC grounds. He developed and introduced one of these, “Pearle LeClair,” named for his wife and noted for its large, bright red fruits. This holly is planted in the Coker Arboretum. Stretching from East Franklin Street to the Hinton James dormitory, his memorable landscape designs include the original rose garden in front of the Morehead Planetarium and the remodeling of the Old Well.

LeClair was firmly rooted into his horticultural profession. Even after retiring, he served UNC as a

Francis Joseph LeClair (1884-1973) was Landscape Architect at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during the 1940s and 1950s. Undated photograph courtesy of his daughter, Charlotte Kelso.

landscape consultant. At his farm in Pittsboro, NC, he spent his free time growing hollies and other plants. UNC administrators and faculty, as well as local friends, recognized his accomplishments. In 1956 the Faculty Council passed a resolution of commendation “for his notable contribution to the beauty of the campus.” His friends and colleagues honored him by establishing in the Botany Department (now Biology) the annual Francis J. LeClair Award in Botany, which was first given in 1974 to a senior selected for high scholarship.

Francis J. LeClair died November 11, 1973, and is buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. He has left a horticultural legacy that is enjoyed by many who traverse the Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.

Nearly a decade after LeClair’s death, nationally recognized horticulturist, garden writer, and longtime Chapel Hill resident, William Lanier Hunt, led a holly walk on the UNC campus. An article on this occasion was published in the January 1983 issue of the Holly Letter, newsletter of the Holly Society of America. Mr. Hunt dedicated the tour to several people, among them Francis J. LeClair. He remembered LeClair as a “wonderful horticulturist, delightful and cantankerous man, whose beautiful plantings” adorn the campus. During the two-hour walk through the two hundred-year-old campus, attendees beheld mature specimens of the older American holly cultivars. Hunt continued by saying that “older plantings here are the work of F. J. LeClair, one of the great promoters of the Holly Society [of America] in its formative period. Recent plantings were made by Larry Trammel. The very oldest trees were planted, I think by God.”

Little doubt exists that Francis LeClair introduced and named the Pearle LeClair holly. Hunt, however, provides some background on its origin, claiming that he found it “on the streets of Chapel Hill as Christmas greens. Mr. LeClair did not know that Jim Spencer at the old Lindley Nursery in Greensboro [NC] had propagated this holly for me, nor that the trees were already growing in my arboretum when LeClair came to Chapel Hill. These trees are still there. Since that time, I have given a large specimen to the campus (lost in a drought) and two more to the Coker Arboretum.” The origin of this special holly may be buried in time, but its splendor prevails.

Francis J. LeClair and his wife, Pearle Dulane Mangham LeClair (3 July 1892 – 3 April 1950) are buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery adjacent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.