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  • Beltsville News

Obituary: Behnke Festerling, Sonja


Sonja Behnke Festerling

Sonja Behnke Festerling lost her long battle with Alzheimer’s disease at age 89 on the morning of December 9, 2022. Our beloved wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister...she will be missed.

Born on September 7, 1933, to her parents, Albert and Rose Behnke, Sonja grew up in Beltsville, Maryland, with her brothers at the Behnke home on the grounds of Behnke Nurseries, the nursery that her parents started in 1930. During her childhood, Sonja made friendships that she kept throughout her life. For many years a group of her girlfriends would get together for long weekends to “solve all the problems of the world,” as she would say.

Life was a stage for Sonja, and she had that million-dollar smile that made people want to be around her. Sonja graduated from the last and best senior class of Greenbelt High School in 1951 before they closed their doors. After completing high school, Sonja went to NYC and attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts, creating many more friendships along the way. From there, Sonja relocated to Hollywood, California, in the mid-50s. She eventually returned home with her two children, where she taught modeling at a top agency in Washington, D.C. A few years later, Sonja returned to work full-time at Behnke Nurseries.

Sonja met the love of her life, Joachim (Joe) Festerling in 1968, a nurseryman from Germany, while he was working at Behnke's. They got married in 1972 and moved to West Friendship, Maryland, where her husband started Lindenhof, his wholesale nursery. Together they enjoyed going to auctions, filling their home with many treasures they found along the way.

Sonja had many roles at Behnke Nurseries and became President of the company in 1995 until she retired. You would find her most often working with her African Violets or helping customers, rather than being in the office. She also was in charge of advertising for the nursery. Sonja started the Christmas Shop in the late 1960’s by convincing her father that a few German decorations would sell. The Christmas Shop became one of the only Christmas Shops in the area. Sonja was proud of all the people over the years that worked with her at Behnke’s. She empowered so many high schoolers with the opportunities of growth, independence, and development.

During this time, she was also a member of the Beltsville Rotary Club for 25 years, where she served as the first woman President of the group. Sonja embraced the Rotary ideals and truly lived in that manner. She served in every leadership role in the club at least one time and took on important responsibilities at the district level. Every year you would find Sonja ringing the Salvation Army Bell at Behnke’s as a member of the Rotary. Giving back to the community was something she loved to do, and like in every role she took on, she did so with the same level of cheerfulness and positivity.

During Sonja's life, she enjoyed traveling around the world with her husband, mother, grandchildren and friends. Always up for an adventure, one of her last trips was to Antarctica, where she marched with the penguins. A theater and arts enthusiast, Sonja loved attending live shows, as well as watching all the old classics on TV. She found enjoyment and peace in gardening, reading, and daily word games.

Sonja is survived by her husband, Joachim (Joe) Festerling; her two children, John Peter Thompson and Stephanie Fleming, and son-in-law Jonathan Fleming; her two grandchildren, Steven Fleming and Jaimie Shirokobrod, and three great grandchildren, Aaron and Zoe Shirokobrod, and Robert Fleming; her siblings, William Behnke and Albert H. Behnke and her two sisters-in-law, Ele Behnke and Cathy Behnke. In addition, Sonja had many nieces and nephews. Her parents, Albert and Rose Behnke, and older brother Roland Behnke, predeceased her.

A celebration of Sonja's life will be held at a future date. Per Sonja’s wishes, the family has requested no flowers. Instead, look around and enjoy all that nature has to offer. Cut a bouquet of flowers and enjoy them in your home.

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