William Klaszus, 8, took a few seconds to compose his answer when asked why trees are important.
“They help us live,” said William.
“They look nice. They give us oxygen. They give us what we need to make our houses.”
William made the 21-word case for trees while he helped his dad, Jonah, uncle Micah, and grandma Christel pack seedlings at the Muttart Conservatory for this year’s Arbor Day.
It’s good to believe his great-grandfather Ernst was there, too.
Ernst Klaszus was known far and wide, and by creatures big and small, as Mr. Tree. Klaszus died in 2012, of natural causes, at the age of 82, his legacy as a tree planter firmly rooted.
His life is the stuff of Netflix.
Klaszus was born in East Prussia on Nazi Germany’s eastern border in 1929. As a teenager, he and his family would escape to the safety of a nearby forest during Allied air raids. The trees protected them from falling shrapnel.
His father, who worked shovelling coal for trains in the area, was killed in an air attack. Ernst Klaszus was 14 years old when that tragedy happened. With his family, and with the legion of others forced by war onto the open road, he was a refugee.
He went to Germany, and, years later, to a seminary exchange in Wisconsin (where he met Barbara, who would be his wife of 57 years), and then to St. Albert, where he served as a Lutheran pastor.
Trees stayed in him, and around him.
In an obituary tribute in The Globe And Mail, his grandson Jeremy Klaszus put it like this:
“Ernst was most in his element amid trees, whether showing children how to plant a seedling or make a five-minute match. In the 1980s he started volunteering with the Alberta Junior Forest Wardens. His dedication and seemingly limitless knowledge of trees made him a legend within the organization and beyond. He ultimately became chief warden, and glowed with pride whenever he wore his red uniform.”
Plant them, plant them, keep planting them
Outside the Muttart Conservatory on seedling packing day, Christel Laboucane listened while her grandson talked trees. She said her 93-year-old mother would have made the trip to help if it wasn’t for COVID.
And she thought about her father, Ernst “Mr. Tree” Klaszus.
“He would have said this is truly, truly amazing that all these people came out to help to bag trees,” said Laboucane, watching the 52 volunteers who, that day, would bag 22,250 Lodgepole pine and White spruce seedlings.
“When we first started there was just my family,” she said. ”My dad one time came home and said I need some help. He had met [Muttart Grower] Jim McGillis here and was looking for trees and Jim said, sure, you can have some trees if you get some people to help bag them.”
That is how the Klaszus family helped grow the Edmonton’s Arbor Day tradition. The bagged seedlings, grown from seed by Tree Time Services, have found their way to Grade 1 and Grade 2 students across Edmonton in a partnership between the City of Edmonton and the Province of Alberta.
“My dad would say plant them, plant them, keep planting them, take care of them, nurture them, that’s what it was all about for him,” Laboucane said.
Gord’s tree revisited
Gord Cebryk was one of the countless Grade 1 students who planted their Arbor Day trees.
“I planted the tree in 1971—50 years ago, if you can believe it,” said Cebryk.
“It was just a small little tree, I remember bringing it home, I think it was in a little plastic container, and there was one sprout going up, and one little sprig going off to the side.”
Fifty years later, Cebryk is the City of Edmonton’s Deputy City Manager of City Operations, the department that includes Arbor Day in the services provided to Edmontonians.
Recently, Cebryk visited his childhood home in the Forest Heights neighbourhood, where, for the last five decades, his tree has stood its ground.
“I’m glad it’s still here and that the people who own the house now kept it up,” he said.
A city without trees: dullsville
Cebryk said the alternative to Arbor Day is unthinkable.
Watch Cebryk’s return to his Arbor Day tree, and get the big picture on Arbor Day in a new video from the City of Edmonton:
Editor’s note: William Klaszus with his Grandma Christel Laboucane, flanked by uncle Micah (left) and dad, Jonah (right), at Arbor Day seedling packing event at Muttart Conservatory, May 2, 2021. Share your Arbor Day tree stories and why trees are important to you. For more details, visit edmonton.ca/arborday.