On Wednesday, March 28, in Wichita, longtime Great Bend Tribune City Editor Chuck Smith received the State Forester’s Award in Community Forestry.
The next day, he died.
Fast forward almost seven months. On a Barton County Courthouse Square buffeted by a stiff, cold north wind, members of the Great Bend Tree Board huddled around a tree being planted in Smith’s memory.
“We wanted to honor him for all he did for the Tree Board,” said board President Charles Waknitz, shovel in hand. Smith wrote numerous articles that appeared on the pages of the Tribune over the years, calling attention to the need to maintain and improve the community’s treescape.
This work included a series of stories on the pine wilt epidemic ravaging evergreen trees across the state. It was this series that earned Smith the state award through the Kansas Forest Service.
“He did an awful lot for us,” board member Susan Bowers said. “We just wanted to recognize his efforts.”
“Chuck was an institution in Great Bend,” said Tribune Publisher Mary Hoisington. He had been at the paper for 34 years.
“He was passionate about the community and about its appearance,” she said. “His support of the Tree Board and its work were clear evidence of that.”
Now, the tree will stand as a lasting memorial. “This is a fitting tribute,” Hoisington said.
In the near future, a plaque will be installed at the site.
The tree is a shumard oak, one of the varieties recommended for this area, and it stands on the north edge of the square. Being autumn, the 10-foot-tall tree’s leaves are already a blazing red.
Waknitz said this has been a bad year. “We’ve had a problem with the dry weather. We’ve lost a lot of trees.”
The drought has stressed trees, he said. “Then they are more susceptible to disease.”
That leads to another reason for Wednesday’s event. “We just want to encourage people to plant trees,” he said.
In fact, the Tree Board offers a $50 rebate to help with the purchase of up to two new trees. It also has a program to aid in the removal of dead or dying ones.
Its members appointed by the Great Bend City Council, the Tree Board receives funding through the city.
Smith died March 29 at his Great Bend home at the age of 56. Born in Salina, he was raised in Great Bend, graduating from Great Bend High School and the University of Kansas.