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