The Small Miracle Of a Large Tree

Written 10 years ago, the letter to the editor reads, "Every year a small miracle occurs on the corner of King George Street and College Avenue." The author of the letter, an employee of St. John's College at the time, writes that her daily "ritual goes like this: At dusk I leave my office on the hill sneak a furtive look to the left as I head toward my car and check to see if the miracle has occurred during the day without my knowing it. For several days, I'm disappointed---no miracle. Then it happens, just as it has for the past 26 years..."

The writer, Karen Holland Krieger, was describing in her own words, "the otherwise non-descript, graceful cedar deodara, dancing with colored lights...not the dainty, white star lights of neo-colonial Annapolis but the huge, serious, multi-colored bulbs of a 1950s childhood that trigger a nostalgic response to a time when mittens were scratchy and Decembers were cold..."

The U. S. Naval Academy Alumni Association is housed in the lovely brick building on the corner to which Krieger refers in her letter. They say no one is quite sure when the beautiful cedar tree was planted and by whom, although turn-of-the-century photographs of Alumni House show the building with a circular driveway-and no tree in front of it.

In 1739, Dr. William Stevenson built what is now Alumni House, but he did not live long enough to become its first resident. Stevenson's widow rented the house to Samuel Ogle who made the house the official governor's mansion when he and his wife resided there during his terms in office. Ogle was governor of Maryland from 1731 to 1742 and from 1747 to 1752. The house changed many times, with owners including Adm. Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent of the Naval Academy, Maryland Gov. Thomas Pratt (1845-1848), and Vice Adm. David Dixon Porter, superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1866. The Alumni Association purchased Ogle Hall in 1944 and made the facility its national headquarters shortly thereafter.

What the Alumni Association may not have known at the time was that the property included (or would in the future) a lovely specimen Cedrus deodara (deodar cedar), "a native of central Asia with an extremely graceful and pendulous habit and a potential to grow to 150 to 200 feet," according to Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, that, over time, the tree would reach an impressive 70 feet, and that its sweeping branches would display hundreds of holiday lights to delight the public.

The picturesque tree has been lit for at least the last 41 years. In the early 1960s climbers hand-placed strings of lights along its branches. The Davey Tree Expert Company, which has done the lighting over the years, now uses a bucket truck to place most of the 100-foot sections of lights at 12-inch intervals in a process that takes nearly eight hours. The climbers still climb, though, because the ends of the long branches have to be accessed by hand, and the bucket truck can reach only the parts of the tree closest to College Avenue.

Long-time employee of the tree company Lawrence Eckart says he misses climbing the 70-foot cedar. He climbed the tall tree for nine years until he became the company's assistant district manager. "We used to hand-wire the ends [of the light strings] with wire nuts and electrical tape---we'd have to play electrician and make our own connections, then connect to extension cords and string them across the path to receptacles. Inevitably, the circuits would be overloaded and we'd blow a fuse. We're really not electricians---we're tree guys," he says.

The Alumni House has since installed dedicated lines and ground receptacles to accommodate the numerous extension cords. Eckart says, "As the tree grows, we've added lights and, with moisture a constant concern, strings of lights have had to be replaced as well." Since the top of the tree is higher than the reach of the bucket truck, Eckart has had to climb to the top to install the star. "It's a difficult tree to climb," he says, "but it's fun. It's really not much like work---all the guys enjoy doing it and fight to get the job."

Over the years, the tree has been decorated with not only multi-colored lights but also with red plastic balls. During the 1980s a security guard was hired to "protect" the tree during the evening hours from vandals who pulled off the lights and smashed them in the street. Plastic owls placed high in the tree continue their own protection of the tree from damage by sap sucker birds.

In 1962, Capt. Bill Busik came on as director of athletics at the Naval Academy and joined the board of directors of the Alumni Association as a trustee. He recalls "that the tree was decorated then and much smaller. It hit my fancy because I come from Pasadena, Calif. The city of Altadena, just north of us, has a mile-long road of deodaras all decorated with lights, on both sides of the highway, that people come from many miles away to view." Busik remembers that as a Boy Scout his troop helped to direct the traffic, warming themselves from fires built in barrels. He recalls that, "these were mature trees, like ours is now."

Busik retired in 1971 and became executive director (years later the title changed to president and CEO) of the USNA Alumni Association. "There were a couple of years when we did not light the tree," says Busik. "It was a very expensive ordeal."

In 1994, with the expense in mind, the Alumni Association decided not to light the tree. That's when the Class of '52 stepped in. Jack Sheehan ('52) remembers getting a haircut on Maryland Avenue and the manicurist saying what a shame it was that the Alumni House tree was not going to be lit anymore. Says Sheehan, "I went to the [then] president of the Class of '52, and he agreed that, because it is a landmark and everyone in Annapolis looks forward to it, the class would fund the lighting."

The rigging of the tree lights is a major undertaking because of the size of the tree. By assuming fiscal responsibility and starting a new tradition, the Class of '52 maintains the tree's historical significance to the Academy and to the City of Annapolis. Says the current Class of '52 president Adm. Jim Nunneley, "The Naval Academy Class of '52 enjoys an especially close bond with the Alumni House. Many of us had our wedding receptions there. Several years ago, the class provided the financial support to restore the ball room to its present beautiful condition...and, more recently, the class funded the installation of lighting for the flagpole at the corner of King George Street and College Avenue so that our colors will always be illuminated for all to see."

This year marks the sixth annual tree lighting celebration of the Cedrus deodara that adorns the front lawn of the Alumni House. Krieger's letter to the editor has been published in the local paper for the last 10 years and has been read each year at the tree-lighting ceremony.

The letter-writer's children are grown now, so she can no longer "race home, hustle them into the car and drive downtown to show them the tree." But the huge, old cedar tree is still the source for many Annapolitans of the small miracle that occurs each year during the holidays on the corner of King George Street and College Avenue.

When not wearing one of her hats for Inside Annapolis Magazine, Carolyn Lee can be found paddling her kayak or working in her garden.


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