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About Utah: Valentine's Day garden is at heart of gathering place

THANKSGIVING POINT — It was exactly 15 years ago that Alan Ashton made every other male on the face of the Earth look like a chump by comparison.

At noon on Feb. 14, 1995, he put his arms around his wife, Karen, and handed her the deed to 150 acres of land he'd just bought between Lehi and the Point of the Mountain.

"Happy Valentine's Day, honey," he said,

Alan didn't just buy Karen flowers; he bought her an entire garden.

"I'd always wanted people to ask, 'Can I walk through your garden?' " remembers Karen.

This was back when, other than a few tulips in the front planter box, she didn't have a garden at all. Back in the days when all her concentration was on raising 11 kids.

Alan was a full-time college professor at the time, and Karen was a homemaker, which amounted to more than full time. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Orem. At one point, they had five kids in one room. They were happy. They had plenty of love, although they were a tad cramped.

Then along came the computer revolution. Along with Bruce Bastian, Alan developed and marketed a word-processing program they named WordPerfect that the world bowed down and worshipped.

In 1994, they sold WordPerfect to Novell for $600 million.

Alan's accountant strongly advised diversification. Real estate, he suggested, would be a good place to start.

That's when Alan realized he could not only satisfy his accountant but also become the king of Valentine's Day.

"He knew that to have a garden was just huge to me," says Karen. "He also knew the things I want to do never make any money.

"He let me do something truly beautiful."

The area midway between Salt Lake City and Provo that we now call Thanksgiving Point was known as Fox's Dairy Farm at the time.

The Ashtons bought the farm.

Their intention from the start was to build a gathering place they could share with the public, beginning with the garden.

Alan allotted Karen all the land she needed. She wound up taking a little more than 55 acres for her flowers. But that wasn't all. She also suggested it would be nice to beautify the surrounding fields so people strolling through the garden wouldn't have to look out at sagebrush.

That's how the nationally acclaimed Thanksgiving Point Golf Course, designed by Johnny Miller, came to be.

Alan didn't even play golf. Neither did Karen.

The rest of Thanksgiving Point (the name is a combination of the nearby Point of the Mountain and giving thanks to God) is also centered around Karen's garden — the dinosaur museum, the shops, the working farm, the concert hall, the movie theater, the restaurants.

Still to come is The Museum of Natural Curiosity for children, a $25 million project.

Over time, the grounds have expanded to 350 acres, and the Ashtons have transferred ownership of the entire development to a nonprofit foundation.

Thanksgiving Point is truly a public gathering place.

But the heart remains the garden, with its themed sections, its 250,000 tulips, its acre after acre of every variety of rose, its meandering paths, its water features, its tranquil magnificence.

Few spots on the planet are full of more concentrated beauty.

Karen got her Valentine's dream. People by the thousands come by and ask if they can walk through her garden. And then they ask if they can walk through again.

And I suppose, in a way, Alan got what every man dreams for on Valentine's, too. Every year when another Feb. 14 rolls around, he gives his wife roses without even having to stop by the store.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com