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Remembering ‘The Tulip Lady’

She was a retired educator. But more widely known as the Tamaqua Tulip Lady.

Doris Wittig Kehlor was a self-taught botanist with a special knack for flowers and plants.

In fact, she knew how to create her own version of the Garden of Eden.

In the 1990s, or even earlier, she began to plant tulip bulbs all around her house.

Every year, she planned a color-coordinated theme to surround her quaint, brick Cape Cod situated high on the North Ward hillside.

She and husband John - she called him Wes - lovingly placed tulip bulbs at just the right locations.

“They need to be fresh each year because they don’t look quite the same even if they would happen come up again,” she said.

So she planted hundreds every fall. Eventually, thousands.

Creating a magical fairyland scene, she nurtured more than 5,600 tulips in 1999, plus a variety of other spring flowers.

Then she spent most of early May answering questions from visitors. Lots of visitors.

People came from all points in Pennsylvania and neighboring states for a chance to see the Tulip House.

“It can be hard, because we never know exactly when they’ll bloom. Much depends on the weather.”

By 2001, the display grew to 6,000 tulips.

“It’s really at its peak right now, but could last another week,” she said.

I stopped to see Doris and Wes every year. I photographed their gardens and wrote stories.

I enjoyed watching how she seemed to float around the blooms, moving so delicately among flower beds.

Softly. With grace. Doris seemed to be ethereal, at one with nature. People took notice.

Her sweet personality and spectacular display of colors and textures drew rave reviews by garden clubs from Allentown and other areas.

A trip to 405 North Lehigh St. became a spring ritual, a chance to catch a glimpse of botanical wizardry.

The Kehlor home became the town’s number one springtime tourist attraction.

Doris showcased various tulip varieties meticulously arranged and accompanied by complementary flowers and plants.

“I map it out. It’s different each year.”

One year the palette was strictly pink and white.

Her tulip symphony was contrasted against a subtlety of other hues, such as blue pansies and violas.

Adding texture and interest were 27 impatiens baskets and more than 40 hydrangea pots. Those flowers carried a tint which Doris described as “a next-to-impossible-to-find shade of pale pink.”

The house was featured in national publications including “Good Housekeeping” and “Country Garden.”

It also was the site of formal garden tours sponsored by civic organizations.

As always, Doris was quick to credit her husband, a retiree of Atlas Powder Company and ICI Americas Inc.

“I couldn’t do any of this without Wes. He takes me on all kinds of trips to garden centers.”

The tantalizing displays popped up fresh every year for decades and grew to more than 7,000 tulips.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Over Fourth of July weekend 2020, John Wesley Kehlor passed away at age 81.

The death stunned Doris. A major setback. Yet she managed to carry on.

Her heart was heavy but she persevered, doing what she did best: she expressed herself in flowers.

She found ways to make it work, to make things easier. For one, she sought help with chores. And she opted to use more potted plants in her displays.

She continued to surround herself with perfect petals and manifested a glow of serenity, which had come to define her. Her trademark.

But youth and bloom are fleeting. They’re subject to the whims of time.

On Tuesday, June 18, Doris quietly slipped away. A loss for the entire community.

The brilliant colors, textures and patterns she brought to life will never be matched or duplicated.

That’s because Doris Kehlor’s desire to create beauty was unique and personal.

At its very heart was a reflection of her goodness and pure love.

The flowers may vanish, but the images and memories will live forever.

Doris Wittig Kehlor tends to her garden.
By 1999, Doris and John ‘Wes' Kehlor planted 5,600 colorful tulips at their home on North Lehigh Street in Tamaqua. The Cape Cod house took on an enchanted appearance and became the town's primary tourist attraction every spring.
The Kehlor house on North Lehigh Street, Tamaqua, featured more than 7,000 tulips in 2013, planted fresh each year and with new color schemes and patterns.