Oregon Observer - 7/17/2014

Rooted in a cause

Arborist group cleans up tornado damage for veteran

Samantha Christian

Unified Newspaper Group

Stan Gefke sat in awe on a bench outside of his front door Saturday, but it wasn’t because of the destruction the EF1 tornado left in his yard the night of June 29.

He was grateful to witness about a dozen expert volunteers joining together to tackle a cumbersome project with ease.

An arborist network had showed up that morning at his home perched on a hill on Schneider Drive to help remove the numerous oak, cherry and box elder trees on his Town of Dunn property that fell or were damaged during the storm.

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“I was home (and) just had gone to bed … I heard it storm, and then I turned on the television in my bedroom in the morning and they said Schneider Drive had been hit by a tornado,” Gefke said. “I thought, I better get up and see where that is. I (came) down and open(ed) up my garage door and I couldn’t get out – a big oak tree was lying right across.”

While his home sustained only minor structural damage, including a ripped screen and broken gutter and railing, the trees – some more than 100 years old – took the brunt of the storm. This wasn’t the first time his property had been hit, either – nine years ago it was in the path of the deadly F3 tornado that ripped through the area on the way to Stoughton, taking some of his oak trees with it.

The lifelong Oregon resident has experienced many obstacles in his 89 years, so a few downed trees weren’t going to keep him from flashing smiles while he intently watched the cleanup efforts unfold this weekend – especially when the chipper noisily yet effortlessly swallowed thick brush and tree limbs.

No stranger to scenes of destruction, Gefke served as an Army infantryman during World War II, surviving the largest and bloodiest battle the United States was involved in, the Battle of the Bulge. A recipient of two Purple Hearts, he spent 16 months in and out of European and American hospitals.

“I got shot up a little bit, that’s why I can’t stand up too long,” he said, pointing to his hip, knee, back and shoulder, where he was injured by shrapnel. “They wanted to take it (my leg) off, but I said, ‘Naw, I’ll keep it.’”

Branching out

The former Madison Milk Producers lab technician has lived alone since his wife, Joan, passed away in 2010, but he still drives his car and keeps busy. But sawing down trees isn’t on his to-do list anymore.

So Gefke’s son John and his family came over right away to help the morning after the storm.

“His driveway and garage doors were blocked,” John Gefke said. “So my wife, two daughters (and I) spent half a day just clearing things so he could get his car out and down his driveway. It was kind of a safety issue.”

The Gefkes soon realized they would need the help of professionals to manage the rest of the tree damage on the property, as the insurance company would only help with the cost to fix the damage to the house, not with removing the trees and cleaning up the brush.

“There’s only so much I can do,” John Gefke said. “(This is) a bit beyond my expertise. Especially with the one (big oak) tree in the backyard. You needed somebody to climb it. I don’t have any safety gear and (could have) damaged the house trying to bring that down.”

He approached certified arborist Jeff Olson, the owner and operator of Arbor Systems, a full-service tree care company based in the Town of Oregon.

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“We were ready to have (Jeff) come over and do the work,” John Gefke said. “He explained how much work there was going to be and I really thought it was reasonable, (because) I know how much arborists charge. So I told him, ‘Yeah let’s get on the schedule – come on over, we have to do something,’” said John.

Since Stan is a veteran on a limited income, though, Olson considered the options and turned the job down. Instead of making a profit he decided to make a difference.

“I slept on it and thought, ‘Why don’t we do it for free?’” he said.

John Gefke was “shocked” when he received the call the next day from Olson, who had also reached out to Evan Slocum, executive director of Urban Tree Alliance, to “put the arborist networking group to the test.”

Several professionals from the area gave freely of their time and pitched in to help saw trees, haul wood and chip brush on Saturday, including workers from Shade Lovers Tree Service, Goodland Tree Works, Inc., the Dane County Parks Department, Wisconsin Urban Wood, Madison Carpenters Local 314, Baraboo Woodworks, Arbor Systems and Urban Tree Alliance.

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John Gefke said the group helped tremendously.

“For the insurance companies not to step up and help homeowners when it’s such a costly expense … You know it probably would have run close to $10,000 when everything was said and done, and there’s no way my dad on a fixed income can afford that,” he said. “And it wasn’t a luxury. He had to have it done. So to have a group like Jeff’s is just fantastic.”

“It’s just people helping people,” said Olson. “This is exactly why we designed the group.”

Sustainable wood

To top off an already great story, the organizations all seemed to support the sustainable idea of keeping the salvageable wood local.

“Normally wood goes to the chipper, but we want to change that,” said Twink Jan-McMahon of Wisconsin Urban Wood. “It’s about connecting all the fantastic people who work with trees with the people who care about trees. (These are) skilled and amazing people.”

She said the most sustainable thing that can happen with wood is to take it to sawyers who can sell it, mill it and “get it into the hands of a woodworker to make furniture, flooring or art” for the homeowner where the tree came from in the first place. To do that, Jan-McMahon said the general public needs to be educated about what is really in trees.

Wisconsin Urban Wood is committed to “preserving urban wood’s unique characteristics, bringing life to dead trees by creating products of lasting value,” according to its website.

“(We want) people to buy (wood) as a local resource instead of at a big box store,” she said.

Fred Clark of Baraboo Woodworks said one white oak measured in at 30 inches in diameter and probably stood about 80 feet tall. He plans to keep the wood in the area to send to mill.

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The mission of Baraboo Woodworks, according to its website, is “to restore the connection between people and land by producing beautiful, artisanal wood from well-managed trees and forests right here where we live.”

Connections were certainly made Saturday. And although one day was not enough time for all the remaining branches and limbs to be picked up by the group, their efforts went a long way to help a grateful veteran.

John Gefke expects the rest of the cleanup to take a solid couple of days between clearing the debris, cleaning up little branches and trying to re-landscape.

“But the bulk of it – the stuff we really couldn’t do without help – is done,” he said. “I just really appreciate that there are groups like Jeff’s that are going out and helping people that really can’t afford this type of help.”

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