Just two days ago, a thin, bespectacled 51-year-old patted down the final shovelful of dirt near a corner of Latrobe Park and entered into his book “13,849.”
That’s the number of trees – maples, oak, cherry, dogwood, river birch, among others – that Gene DeSantis has planted in Baltimore.
Nobody else has come close to matching his record, says Jeff Barrett, who has watched Gene’s prodigious work ethic first at the Department of Recreation and Parks and now as operations manager of the Parks & People Foundation. Barrett says he can vouch for the accuracy of the tree count.
Carrie Gallagher is equally bowled over by the diffident dirt-slinger.
“He’s one of our stalwarts,” says the executive director of the Alliance for Community Trees.
She notes with a chuckle that Baltimore’s version of Johnny Appleseed usually arrives at a tree planting on a city bus. Grabbing a shovel, he sizes up a sapling, unwraps its balled burlap undergarments and places it into a deep well-drained hole with the aplomb of a seasoned pro.
Gene has planted trees in just about every neighborhood in Baltimore. He’s brought them to parks big and small, sat them along streets, dug spaces for them in tight corners, inserted them next to tall buildings and plunked them down by gurgling streams.
He never accepts any sort of payment. Says he doesn’t need to. Satisfaction comes from watching them grow and knowing that he’s fulfilling a personal commitment he made many years ago. “Trees are like children to me in a lot of ways,” he says.
I met Gene while he was planting a handful of maple saplings on 26th Street for the Margaret Brent Elementary School. Since then, I’ve gotten to know him and his back-story better. Both are worth telling.
The Solace of Trees
DeSantis was born in Dundalk in 1960, the only child of an alcoholic mother who hooked up with an ex-Marine when he was seven.
“He told her he was going diamond hunting in California,” Gene recalled, and off they went to San Pedro, south of L.A., where they lived in a falling-down bungalow. Young Gene went to school irregularly, often dropping out to take care of his mother, which made him all the more vulnerable to his stepfather’s rages.
“My stepfather would beat me with anything imaginable and my mother would, too. It was the scariest period in my life.”
He found relief from the abuse and chaos in nature. “I would go away and sit by the trees because this was the only tranquility I had. Out in California, they don’t have woods, but they had trees. They were my escape.”
Things came to a head when Gene was 16. One night his stepfather broke down the front door in a drunken rage and ransacked the bungalow.
“He was screaming for me. I slipped out the window and hid in an outhouse. He then did what he did – he went into the room where my mother was sleeping and shot my mother dead. He then looked around for me. Finally he said, ‘fuck it,’ and shot himself.”
With both parents dead, Gene returned to Baltimore County and lived with his biological father. He graduated from Towson High School (“I had missed a couple grades, but the principal gave me a test and I passed it”), had a religious experience, became a born-again Christian and decided to devote himself to volunteer efforts.
In the spring of 1977, Gene watched some city workers plant trees near the Inner Harbor. “I said, ‘That looks like nice work. Can I help?’ They said, ‘Oh, it’s hard work and we can’t pay you.’”
Gene jumped at the chance and relished the camaraderie of the workmen, who became his surrogate family after his father died in 1980.
By now he was going to Towson State University, but he was on a different career track than his fellow students. Tree planting and other volunteer activities consumed his life.
Graduating from Towson in 1982, he selected jobs that fit into his schedule. Over the years they included a baker’s helper, short-order cook, cashier and front-line assistant in an outlet store.
Nowadays he is a live-in aide for an elderly woman. He has no telephone and doesn’t use a computer. “I’m not Amish but I’m not part of the modern world. I’m old-fashioned,” he says matter-of-factly.
Food for the Homeless
Doris Franz-Poling, volunteer program manager for Our Daily Bread, says Gene usually comes in before her at 7 a.m. He has been volunteering at the downtown relief center for 26 years.
“People volunteer for different reasons,” she says. “Gene is dedicated to service. He is highly dependable. We know that on Mondays and Wednesdays he will be here and take the lead on the desserts. It’s one thing to come here and do your work, but Gene is always eager to help the other servers. He’s a leader and that’s important in this environment.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, DeSantis works at the Hooper Adult Day Care Center at Patterson Park. He helps with the food and conducts what he calls a “reality class” for seniors suffering from dementia.
On Fridays he makes sandwiches at the Riverside Baptist Church. The sandwiches are distributed on Sunday morning along with a hot breakfast that Gene helps prepare for the homeless. When time permits, he goes over to the Baltimore Rescue Mission on Central Avenue and cleans tables.
Nos. 13,843 and 13,844
Last week Gene squeezed in an extra task – he helped Parks & People replace some dead trees in the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood.
It was after 9 a.m. when he and Bernard Hood maneuvered No. 13,843 – an eight-foot-high linden – in place on Hamburg Street. Within minutes they were up the street getting a sidewalk tree well prepared for No. 13,844.
According to Parks & People’s Jeff Barrett, the man he’s known for 20 years is the real deal. “Gene’s life is taking care of the environment and the community. He’s just an unstoppable force and a huge component of our tree planting activities.”
Will Lam, a team leader, gave his appraisal after Gene had politely excused himself to go to Our Daily Bread. “The guy’s incredible. He asks, ‘Where you going to be planting Saturday?’ Then he catches a bus to wherever we are.”