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Monday, June 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boughs of history: UW gardener wants to chronicle its trees

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If the grass were dry, and we had more time, we might spend a few minutes of quiet contemplation under this graceful London plane tree - a direct descendant of the one Hippocrates used as an outdoor classroom five centuries before Christ.

But the lawn glistens from a recent shower, we have many more sights to see, and we're following the briskly moving, brown hiking shoes of Jim Kerin along the lawns, gardens, paths and sidewalks of the University of Washington campus.

Kerin, 57, has seen a fair part of that history. He retired this month after 25 years as a UW gardener - pruning, mowing, weeding and digging around campus since Gerald Ford was in the White House and current UW President Richard McCormick was just beginning his teaching career.

George, Martha and Hitler

While many retirees skip out of their workplaces and don't look back, Kerin would like nothing more than to return to campus part time to help research, organize and present information on the university's historical and commemorative trees.

On a two-hour expedition, Kerin showed us more than a dozen important trees, including ones raised from cuttings or seeds from:

• A willow that shaded Napoleon Bonaparte's first grave.

• An elm under which George Washington took control over the Continental Army.

• A dawn redwood thought to be extinct for decades, until some were discovered in a remote area of China.

"The history all around here is unbelievable," said Kerin. "It shouldn't be lost or forgotten."

Take the two English holly trees east of the Art Building. Donated to the university in 1930, they were started from seeds taken from George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va. Their nicknames: George and Martha.

And the Lombardy poplar outside Cunningham Hall? It was planted in 1908 to mark the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle's first world's fair, which was held on the University of Washington campus.

But don't go looking for the Hitler oak. Records tell of a white oak tree given by Adolf Hitler to the coach of the UW crew team after the rowers won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The oak was planted near the site of the present crew house, but died when it was transplanted a few years later. "It's just as well," Kerin said. "It could be pretty controversial to have a tree here from Hitler."

Fading history

A good portion of what Kerin knows about the campus trees comes from a history collected in 1980 by the late C. Frank Brockman, a forestry professor, and Louise Hastie, editor of the "University Report." That project is out of print and out of date, Kerin said.A subsequent tree tour written by author and tree expert Arthur Lee Jacobsen and designed by artists Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds is called the "C. Frank Brockman Memorial Tree Tour." A print version is sold for $1.50 at a vending machine near the Medicinal Herb Garden and is used as a guide to a walking tour of campus.

That tour, also available at www.washington.edu/home/treetour, gives botanical information on 80 campus trees but doesn't cover the historical or commemorative information.

Examples of commemorative plantings around campus include two Eastern red buds, covered with heart-shaped leaves, south of the medical center. Planted in 1994, they were given by organ-transplant recipients in honor of those whose organs they received.

Some trees have particularly interesting twists in their history. The elm tree under which George Washington took military command in Cambridge, Mass., died in 1923, and its only known descendant was at the University of Washington. So a new tree for Cambridge was grown from a limb of the UW tree.

Then in 1963, the tree here was struck and killed by lightning, so a new tree for the UW was grown from a cutting of the new Cambridge tree. The UW's current "Washington elm" has grown so tall and wide that heavy cables have been installed about 30 feet off the ground to keep the weight of the limbs from pulling the tree apart.

480 types of trees

Great credit for the diversity of trees on campus (some 480 different types have been identified) goes to Edmond Meany, history professor and forestry lecturer who taught from 1897 to 1932. He's credited with the first tree-planting on campus and started a seed exchange with numerous botanical gardens within and outside the United States.

It was Meany who smuggled the willow clipping in his suitcase from the tree above Napoleon's grave on St. Helena, the South Atlantic island where Napoleon died in exile.

And Kerin said Meany was known never to call the UW a "university'" but always "university and arboretum."

Kerin is a Denver native who came here with his wife in 1974 after only six months of marriage. He can't remember why they loaded their belongings in two cars and moved here, other than he had a favorable impression of the Seattle area from a childhood visit.

Why project could be important

He admits there are large gaps in his knowledge of the trees, gaps that should be filled if the result is to be a quality presentation. "I'll just have to dig for information down in the archives inside the library."

Jon Hooper, manager of the Outside Maintenance Zone on the campus, said he has no doubt such a project would be beneficial and that Kerin would be an appropriate person for it. "He has shown the interest and has the capability. In fact, he's already kind of started it," Hooper said.

A tougher question, Hooper said, is whether the project, which could cost $12,000 to $15,000, is feasible in these belt-tightening times. Hooper said he's already been asked to trim 5 percent from the grounds crew's proposed budget that takes effect July 1, and will be cutting back many optional services, including the number of annuals planted around campus for color.

Still, Kerin remains enthusiastic. "If they decide to do it," he said, "I want them to know I'm available."

Jack Broom can be reached at 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com.

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