Hidden history of WRAL’s Azalea Gardens :: WRAL.com

— A testament to our Southern heritage, Raleigh has always loved azaleas. I could mark the return of spring by the day my grandma peered out the window and said to me, “The azaleas are blooming.”

Through out the decades, the blooming of the WRAL Azalea Garden has been a constant symbol of the return of spring. Bursting with southern flowers – dogwoods, magnolia, hydrangeas and, of course, azaleas – it’s a sanctuary of life in the middle of a busy city.

The WRAL Azalea Gardens opened in 1959

Marriages have begun there. Memorials to lost loved ones have been left there.

Many people don’t realize, though, that the WRAL Azalea Garden is more than just a colorful symbol of Southern gardening and heritage: It is part of a decades long ‘random act of kindness and senseless act of beauty’ that has impacted thousands of local people in need.

Tulips and azaleas

A tribute to beauty for beauty’s sake

Born in 1887 in Ashe County, AJ Fletcher, the founder of Capitol Broadcasting and WRAL-TV, was the son of a Baptist minister. He worked simple jobs, like running the stables, delivering groceries and attending a fruit stand.

In 1937, he established Capitol Broadcasting along with four other partners. As the success of his radio and television ventures began to grow, Fletcher always looked for ways to give back to Raleigh.

Charlie Gaddy

In 1959, three years after WRAL went on the air, the iconic azalea gardens opened to the public. “It was simply my way of paying tribute to beauty for beauty’s sake,” said Fletcher, who had a genuine passion for azaleas, taking great joy in finding new varieties to display for the community.

He oversaw the planting of 1,000 azaleas.

The rabbit statue in WRAL's azalea garden

Unfortunately, three days before the slated dedication of the thousand delicate blossoms, Raleigh experienced “three straight nights of cold,” according to the history of the gardens. When CBC Corporate Secretary Scottie Stephenson arrived to work in the morning, she saw Fletcher running around in the cold weather, bathing the azaleas in warm water to keep them alive.

When asked why he went to such lengths to create the gardens, Fletcher said, “I did it because I knew it would be beautiful. It was simply my way of paying a tribute to beauty for beauty’s sake.”

More tributes to beauty and kindness

Fletcher’s passion for beauty extended beyond the gardens. Just a few years later in 1961, he established the AJ Fletcher Foundation, which still exists today, providing grant money to hundreds of non-profit endeavors.

Many local charitable organizations have been bolstered by this quiet, behind-the-scenes supporter of local do gooders. According to The Philanthropy Journal, the foundation “has contributed $35 million to over 300 North Carolina organizations” in the past two decades. “In 2001 alone, over $2,250,000 was paid on existing pledges,” the journal said.

These grants “helped ensure the strength of North Carolina’s non-profit sector,” said the Philanthropy Journal. They helped pay staff salaries, assisted with resource development and technical assistance.

Over the decades, as the azaleas grew as a “senseless act of beauty,” just around the corner the foundation provided “random acts of kindness,” and the local non-profit sector blossomed and grew right alongside the Fletcher’s azalea garden.

Floating tulips in the WRAL Azalea Garden

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