Newswise — A little oak tree that sprouted this spring in Newton, Massachusetts, is part of a rich history that links a postwar seventh-grade girl with ESF's first woman president.
The story began in 1948, when 12-year-old Rose Bill, a pupil at Our Lady of Pompei School in Syracuse - now Sister Rose Bill of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception - competed in a citywide science fair.
"I lived on a farm in Liverpool, and I loved nature and trees," Sister Rose recalled in a telephone conversation. "I wanted to do a project on reforestation." She wrote to Professor Ralph Unger '30, chair of the extension department at what was then called the College of Forestry, and asked for help. Professor Unger invited her to campus. If he was surprised to learn his new mentee was young enough to be accompanied by her mother, he hid it well. The professor and the girl met every other week as he showed her campus displays and the paper mill; he taught her more about trees with each visit.
Professor Unger supplied Rose with seedlings for her presentation at Grant Junior High School. It went well - she won, finishing just ahead of a boy whose project about space travel was deemed too fictional by the judges.
But the award presentation was awkward. The organizers had not expected a girl to win. The emcee handed Rose a book titled, "The Boy's Book of Magnetism," a volume about "experiments and information to fascinate the young mind." The girl was disappointed at the perceived slight and passed the book along to the boy who had done the space project.
Rose said she had already made up her mind to become a Roman Catholic sister, but she wanted to keep her decision private for a bit longer. So when people asked about her plans, she said she wanted to attend the College of Forestry. Unger advised Rose's mother to dissuade the girl because students at the College were nearly all male and no one had figured out how to accommodate women during the Summer Camp session in the Adirondacks.
Rose joined the Missionary Franciscan Sisters and earned her master's degree. On a 1972 trip to France, she traveled to the Jura Mountains on the French-Swiss border, where she met a forestry scientist who gave her some pine tree seeds. When she came home for a visit, she gave the seeds to Unger, who was about to retire. It was the last time she saw him.
Sister Rose taught first-graders, then high school students; her subject matter included French, Latin and biochemistry. She was Principal at St. Charles School and Our Lady of Pompei
School in Syracuse. Later in her career, she spent 27 years as a pastoral associate at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt. She followed the local news, so she knew Joanie Mahoney was serving as Onondaga County executive, the highest elected position in county government. Even after moving into active retirement and relocating to the Franciscan convent near Boston, Sister Rose kept following the news of her hometown. "I read that Joanie Mahoney was named the first woman (ESF) president, and I thought, 'Oh great. Finally, they accepted women there.' I saw they had STEM programs for girls during the summer.' I was really happy," she said.
Sister Rose was so pleased that she sent her congratulations to Mahoney in a letter last year. She started with, "So glad you are President of ESF." She recounted the story of how the organizers had not expected a girl to win first place in the long-ago Grant Junior High School science fair. "We certainly have come a long way since then," she wrote.
Sister Rose asked the new president for some seedlings to plant on the convent grounds in honor of Unger. The ESF family sprang into action.
Mahoney told ESF Greenhouse Manager Terry Ettinger about Bill's request. Ettinger happened to be nurturing a handful of seedlings that sprouted from acorns produced by the College's historic Robin Hood Oak. Only one vigorous seedling remained, and Ettinger chose that one for Sister Rose. An email went out to the students and faculty in Ettinger's Department of Environmental Biology: Was anyone traveling to the Boston area soon? Enter Ph.D. student Jesse Czekanski-Moir, who was planning a trip to visit family near Boston. Czekanski-Moir handed off the tree to Sister Rose during a quick stop in Newton, Massachusetts.
The seedling was planted at the Franciscan residence, protected from wildlife by a small fence. Nearby, Sister Rose buried a time capsule that holds a copy of Mahoney's letter to her, which explains the history of the Robin Hood Oak, and a piece of wood she engraved with a dedication to Unger.
Sister Rose was pleased to see the young oak thriving when the weather warmed up this spring. "The tree is doing very well. It just needed a little warmth," she reported. "I will watch it closely."