Guardian Angel to Gretna’s Trees

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 15, 2001

The maples, oaks, pines, and other trees in the parks and along the roadsides of Gretna, Neb., (pop. 3,142) are gracefully beautiful, healthy, and thriving thanks to the efforts of Ron Sawyer.

Whenever they need help, I just do it, says Sawyer, 69, the towns volunteer arborist.

For the last five years, Sawyer has devoted at least 20 hours a week, spring, summer and fall, tending the trees in the eastern Nebraska community where he grew uppruning, mulching, watering, or whatever is necessary.

Sawyers routine begins as soon as the weather warms and continues until cold prevents him from working outdoors. He applies fertilizer and keeps the trees well mulched. He rings young trees with stakes and wires for support and builds cages to protect them. Bark nicked by overzealous lawn mowers provides easy entry for hungry rabbits, rodents, or disease, and once they have nibbled their way around a young tree, it dies.

The bulk of Sawyers time is spent watering, something that surprised him when he first began tending the trees. I thought that we would just put them in the ground, water them once, and then rainfall would take care of it, he recalls.

It didnt work that way. The newly planted trees soon began showing signs of stress, and even mature trees suffered from lack of moisture during hot summer weather. Sawyer responded by including regular watering as part of his weekly routine.

Over the last five years, Sawyer estimates he has planted more than 200 trees in Gretna, but he readily admits he was not always a tree expert. In fact, the survival of the first tree he ever planted 40 years ago was almost miraculous.

Sawyer had dug up a red oak from a friends farm south of town to plant in the corner of his yard but allowed the tree to stand for several days, roots bare of soil, in a big tub of water before he could plant it. That might have drowned the tree, but it survived.

That tree really had the desire to live, he says.

Sawyer began work as Gretnas volunteer arborist when he retired from the U.S. Postal Service at age 65. After a long and active career that included serving as signalman aboard the USS Menard during the Korean conflict, selling and repairing television sets in his fathers hardware store, and delivering Gretnas mail, he wanted to keep himself busy. When a neighbor suggested he join the Gretna Arbor Society in 1996, he not only attended meetings, but volunteered to help with the work.

Mary Gilligan, a longtime society member, was delighted. He took over and did things nobody wanted to do, she says. With Gilligans encouragement and assistance, Sawyer planted 132 trees during his first two years with the society. I called him a guardian angel, Gilligan says.

Working with the trees turned out to be a bigger project than Sawyer expected. A few times I thought, Hey! This is too much! But somebodys got to do it, he says. Ive got the time, so I do it.

Gretna Mayor Jim Warren is grateful for Sawyers efforts. We work with a very small budget, so we wouldnt be able to do (what he does), Warren says. In recognition of his contribution to the community, the Gretna Area Chamber of Commerce named Sawyer Citizen of the Year for 2000.