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Gene DeSantis: Baltimore’s unsung Johnny Appleseed

Volunteer has quietly planted 13,849 trees in the city

1 best cover pic of gene

Gene DeSantis plants a linden tree on Hamburg Street with Bernard Hood and Betty Bland-Thomas.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

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.”

Gene DeSantis plants a maple along 26th Street in Charles Village earlier this month. "Trees are like children to me in a lot of ways," he said. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Gene plants a maple along 26th Street in Charles Village earlier this month. "Trees are like children to me in a lot of ways," he said. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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.”

Born Again

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.

Meals 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.

DeSantis has volunteered for 26 years at Our Daily Bread. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

DeSantis has volunteered for 26 years at Our Daily Bread, working in the kitchen and training new recruits. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“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.”

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  • Mary Roby

    Gene DeSantis is a true environmental hero.  He works hard, not expecting recognition, and his tree planting record is unbelievable.  Congratulations, Gene!

  • Susanne

    What an amazing human being!  Thank you for sharing his story, a true inspiration.

  • Paul Franklin

    I concur with Susanne, Mr. DeSantis is a wondeful human being, his story did its intended job, it made me feel good, but not only for myself but for society as a whole.   Its nice to see those who do wonderful things and are not looking for the spotlight, somehow have the spotlight come and find them…

  • Tim A.

    Gene is the best!!!…so glad the Brew wrote a wonderful story about a wonderful man – Baltimore owes Gene a big “Thank You”!

  • Edmc18

    WOW! Who among us has come remotely close to this mans life of selfless service. Perhaps we should spend less time complaining and more time DOING. What an example. God Bless Mr. DeSantis.

  • Guy Hager

    Great story about a great guy, way to go Gene, keep up the volunteering.

  • Anonymous

    To Gene,
    Gene you are so lovely you bring me to tears.  You were abused but you harbor no hate.  You are not rich but you find the time and you have the wonderfully wide heart to give back.  You ask for nothing in return.  This recognition was long overdue.  Thanks Brew for highlighting a true gentleman who never would seek recognition.

    To Gene—Trees

    At first there were giant lush ferns,
    They unfurled to the sky in steamy jungles,
    Heat spiraled from the earth where they grew,
    Scythes couldn’t cut them,
    Their spores fed the swamps where mosses spread
    like green molasses and birds swooped with shrieks
    on insects that dawdled on mammoth leaves
    bearing flowers that opened their faces
    to the sun and shut their faces to the moon.

    The trees sprang from the putrefaction,
    From the fetid smell of worms turning the mud
    the trees shot their heads up, their tendrils
    weak as whispers, in the bustle, in the beginning,
    their roots snaked to the waters that bubbled
    underground– when they stood– their spines erect,
    their bodies found the height, the hardness,
    the width, the strength,
    above the ferns they shot,
    unlike the ferns they etched their years
    in ripples upon concentric ripples– within
    they clocked time.

    When the winds came winding through the jungles
    the trees whooshed in response-
    they swayed– to stay in place–
    they yielded to the winds,
    Curved as the winds curved,
    Swept as the winds swept,
    Shook their leaves,
    Arched their spines,
    But some fell down.

    down into the bubbling waters underground,
    their ripples dissolved, in the ripples of the waters,
    their substance pulverized by the passage of the elements,
    wood to peat– coal– carbon–diamonds,
    rich was the earth with molten rocks, with dead trees,
    rich was the earth with trees that breathed.

    In the canopies the monkeys screeched,
    The sloths by their toes held on and slept,
    the basilisks watched, from their perches
    the chameleons became rainbows,
    all creatures cheated death by changing,
    adorning themselves with crests, spikes,
    fangs, glands and colors that blended with the trees,
    the lump on a log– a toad,
    the bumps on the branches– snakes–
    twisted in a breathless wait for preys.

    The trees knew them,
    have always known the ways of the many species,
    capture the sun
    in their factories–
    light to food–
    from food water, from water breath,
    from breath life,
    from life more trees–

    Until the sound of the axes–chop, chop, chop,
    Until men with shoulders broad, muscles flowing-
    beneath their rolled up sleeves,
    sweat beading–
    on their brows– the persistence of builders,
    growers, herders, chainsaw makers,
    possessors of land, wind, water,
    planets and stars–
    inventors of destruction more vicious
    than hurricanes and tornadoes,
    than lightning strikes–
    incendiary in the sparks they let fly,

    From the canopy to the roots–
    the bloodless coup of man versus trees–
    forests to prairies,
    prairies to parched ground,
    mahogany to doors, teak to floors,
    oak to beams, pine to tables,
    ash to ash—

    Until the trees crashed in their groves,
    in their valleys,
    in their tropical domains,
    in their arctic abodes,
    on the mountains,
    by the seas,
    gave up their ghosts–
    to the treachery of the chainsaws–
    from food water–
    from water breath–
    from breath–life,
    from life–more trees.

    Upon this scene–Gene,
    a man with a shovel and a wheelbarrow,
    a man who once was a child the trees shaded,
    the trees hid from full view of his father–
    out to get him in a rage,
    out to beat him to a pulp,
    the father foiled by the trees–
    Gene remembers– says the trees are his friends,
    so he plants them everywhere he goes,
    he brings saplings–he bends his back,
    arches like the trees in the wind,
    meets the Earth with his hands,
    Baltimore’s unsung Johnny Appleseed,
    Greens the city, brings shade to it,
    Brings birds to it, brings to it breath,
    from breath-life,
    From life more trees–
    Gene!

    Usha Nellore

     

     

     

     

     

     

      

  • http://twitter.com/epsilonicus Gary

    Great story! Keep up the good work Gene!

  • Ronnie

    Thank you for this moving article about Gene DeSantis. I have had the privilege of observing and speaking with Gene at Our Daily Bread. His humble, quiet dedication and devotion to those who are under-served in Baltimore is so inspiring. What a delight it was to read about Gene’s environmental good deeds as well. Gene, thank you for speaking for the trees! May God continue to bless you and your work.  Ronnie 

  • kostas

    great story -
    inspired me
    thank you
    and love to you
    from greece

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