Just after a severe storm tore through State College on April 2, 1970, former Penn State tree surgeon Joseph Gardner found his car crushed by the large Catalpa tree he’d parked under on campus each work day. On Sunday, another Catalpa will be planted in the same spot during a ceremony honoring the late campus arborist.
The tree planting will be held at 2 p.m. behind Spruce Cottage and the Ritenour Building, the former location of the parking lot where Gardner’s 1954 Chevrolet was victim to the uprooted tree.
Winds of almost 80 mph blew during the storm on the cold spring day, according to the National Weather Service archives. The next morning, the photo on the front page of the Centre Daily Times showed Gardner squatting on the tree with saw in hand, ready to get to work.
A few weeks after the tree was removed, Penn State Office of Physical Plant workers gave Garder an end table made from slices of the tree. The table remains in the Gardner family home in Pleasant Gap, as does the photo of the unfortunate event.
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Gardner began his career at Penn State as a laborer in 1949. Shortly after he started at OPP, Gardner was climbing and maintaining trees on campus under the watchful eye of then-tree surgeon Don Coble. Gardner became the tree surgeon, lead arborist as the position is now titled, in 1968 after Coble retired.
During his time at Penn State, Gardner, Coble and former tree surgeon Kris Edson played key roles in saving the elm trees that began showing signs of Dutch elm disease in the late 1950s, according to current lead arborist Jeff Dice.
“Joe worked with all academic units to try and save the trees,” Dice said. “Joe, Don and all of the staff at the time made the decisions that extended the life of some of the great trees on campus.”
During and after his career, Gardner could be seen driving throughout the valley with his ladders strapped to a rack on top of his car. When the Catalpa crushed his Chevy and ladder rack, Gardner moved on to a Chevelle. He outfitted it with a new ladder rack and continued helping friends and family with their tree troubles.
“He was a tree guy,” Dice said. “He really represented what Penn State arborists are all about.”
Gardner retired in 1991 after more than 40 years working at Penn State, and Edson took over as tree surgeon until he retired in 2016. Edson’s retirement party is where Gardner’s son, J.P., said the idea for the memorial tree was conceived.
“When Kris Edson mentioned the idea of planting a tree to honor dad’s tree surgeon work at Penn State, I thought that’s a pretty good idea, but we didn’t do anything with it at first,” J.P. Gardner said.
In November, Gardner died at age 88. Following his dad’s services, J.P. remembered the memorial tree idea and contacted OPP to inquire about the process, which led to Sunday’s memorial.
“It’s going to be a nice chance to reminisce about a great friend to so many people,” Dice said. “I’m truly honored to be a part of what I think is a well-deserved memorial for a wonderful fellow.”