“Do what is right for the town, and it will do right for you,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli, talking to several hundred school kids gathered in the playground of Huber Street School on April 26 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Arbor Day in Secaucus.
For some dignitaries in the crowd, this was a very meaningful moment, since some had stood in this very place for the first ceremony when the town’s Shade Tree Committee planted Linden Tree saplings here in April, 1993, trees that now stood well above the heads of those in the crowded school yard.
Gonnelli spoke about the need to respect the environment and the town, and how important a day in the year this was because it served as a reminder of the rebirth of spring out of the cold of winter and how everyone needed to take part in preserving and maintaining nature.
And in celebrating the anniversary of Arbor Day in Secaucus, the students were also celebrating the restoration of thousands of trees that would not have been planted if not for the concerted efforts of people like Gonnelli to make it happen.
Gonnelli seen as leader in replanting trees
The greening of Secaucus is nothing new. Early in the 1970s, the Secaucus Woman’s Club had programs for improving the appearance of the town, helping to save areas like Schmidt’s Woods from being destroyed. Later efforts included a yearly cleanup and planting ritual by Secaucus students in a program called Project Pride.
But the formation of the Shade Tree Committee in 1992 began an unprecedented greening of Secaucus that has lasted more than two decades.
For many, Gonnelli’s leadership has been key to restoring this respect for the environment. He helped spearhead a new movement to restore trees to a town that had lost many to age, decay and development.
Twenty years ago, when Secaucus celebrated its first Arbor Day, Gonnelli was head of the Department of Public Works and a member of the Secaucus Shade Tree Committee, seeking to replenish the stock of trees that time, development and a variety of other circumstances had depleted.
“We’re seeing everything come back to life after the winter cold.” – Mayor Michael Gonnelli
Gonnelli had at once time owned a greenhouse and landscape business and was a registered Master Gardener. He has served on the Secaucus Shade Tree Committee since its inception in 1992, and served as the town’s tree conservation officer. At one time, Gonnelli even grew many of the flowers decorating the town from seeds on off-hours and weekends, popping in on various greenhouses to check on their progress
Over the years, he was largely responsible for organizing Arbor Day celebrations as well as the year-round tree conservation program.
Arbor Day is a day for trees
Arbor means “tree” in Latin. The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska on April 10, 1872, the brainstorm of a man named J. Sterling Morton, who wanted to make up for the massive loss of trees he saw going in on that state.
Since then, Arbor Day has been celebrated in every state, usually on the last Friday in April. New Jersey has been celebrating Arbor Day since 1949, with the last Friday in April set aside by law to encourage the planting of trees.
Gonnelli said he is thrilled by the fact that Secaucus has been named a Tree City every year since 1993, a distinction that is not easily earned.
The Tree City USA designation is awarded by the National Arbor Day Foundation, which also gives towns such as Secaucus growth awards for demonstrating progress in its community forestry program – which includes education for tree workers and tree managers and the maintenance of parks and open space.
Tree City, USA began as a 1976 Bicentennial project co-sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA-Forest Service. To become a Tree City USA, a community must meet four standards: have a tree board or department, pass a tree care ordinance, have a comprehensive community forestry program, and hold an Arbor Day observance.
While the planting of trees is part of a year ‘round program, residents, officials, school kids and others gather this time each year to make note of the progress and to renew their energies through poetry, song and speechmaking.
This includes an Arbor Day poem read by middle school students Anshul Tank, William Woltman, and Sebastian Martinez, as well as musical performances by Secaucus High School students and students from both Clarendon and Huber Street schools.
Along with Mayor Gonnelli, council members John Bueckner, James Clancy, Robert Costantino, and Sue Pirro attended. Assemblyman Vincent Prieto also attended.
Gonnelli said part of the celebration of Arbor Day was the rebirth of the world.
“We’re seeing everything come back to life after the winter cold,” he said, saying that there needs to be love and respect for nature and that there is a lesson in this ritual, that of respect for the earth.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.