Would you delay your retirement for a good cause?
Missouri native Ric Mayer did. It’s all good though, he had a valid reason: a two-year stint to reforest a tornado-torn Midwest community.
Back in May of 2011, Mayer was working as an urban forester and contemplating retiring in a few months, so he and his wife could go on a long-planned vacation.
“I worked on a tree crew while I was in college,” Mayer recalls. “I’ve been a cabinet maker. I worked with troubled kids. I worked on greenway trails, and that later got me into the arborist field.” A few childhood experiences helped to nudge him toward the conservation field, he added.
“I had beagles as a kid,” he said. “And before I was old enough to carry a gun, I went hunting with my dad. I also played in the woods. I liked that. It’s something neat for kids to do—play in the woods.”
As of May 21, 2011, Mayer was eagerly anticipating letting go of his busy career and embracing his imminent retirement. He had been working on greenway trails in Springfield, Missouri and he was about to retire from his job as an arborist.
“I was all ready to go to Alaska with my wife for the summer to play,” he added.
Then disaster struck. The next day, amid a swelteringly hot afternoon, a nearly 1-mile wide EF-5 tornado changed the course of his life and that of many others.
Dealing with disaster
The deadly twister slammed Joplin, Missouri, and adjacent Duquesne, killing 161 people and causing nearly $3 billion in damages, as well as leveling much of the city’s tree population.
The storm rendered a third of Joplin essentially shade-less within minutes, leaving survivors to pick up their lives in the sweltering sun.
Mayer, who lives about 75 miles away from Joplin, recalled learning of the disaster. “I was actually fishing at Shawnee Trail, about 20 minutes north of Joplin,” he said. “It was a crazy, windy storm-colored sky. I was aware of a storm coming.
We got the news like everybody else, probably on TV.”
His initial thoughts were, “What a disaster for folks. We’re all aware of tornadoes around here. It was lots of trouble for Joplin.”
Mayer and his wife Jeanie (who worked in the Joplin area) both volunteered for several days helping with the initial debris removal.
Realizing the critical need to reforest Joplin, the U.S. Forest Service Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation to support forest recovery efforts in the area. The partnership provided on-site technical assistance to coordinate resources, as well as grant funding to address the tree pruning, removal and replanting needs.
Part of that funding called for a two-year term position for someone to oversee the reforestation of the battered city.
“They wanted someone for a couple of years,” Mayer said, “and I was willing to commit to it. I decided that was something I wanted to be part of.”
Back to work
Mayer was assigned to a position with the city as the on-site community forest recovery coordinator. His primary job was to manage volunteer efforts for replanting trees lost to the tornado. He had his work cut out for him_several thousands of trees needed to be planted all across the urban landscape.
As it turned out, he soon had plenty of help, as throughout the process, buses pulled up to Joplin’s streets, offloading volunteers looking to help plant trees.
Mayer welcomed the extra hands with open arms.
“Volunteering has always been important to me both as a volunteer and a coordinator,” he said.
In addition to helping hands, other contributions also started pouring in to help reforest Joplin. “There were donations from all over the place,” Mayer said. “From mom and pop operations, up to many large corporations.”
NASCAR, the Arbor Day Foundation and even nearby casinos donated, Mayer said. Other donors included the Federated Garden Clubs, Missouri Forest Products and the Resource Conservation and Development Association, a group of retired foresters, as well as local chapters of the Missouri Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners, who continue to help with the trees.
In all, there were more than 3,700 volunteers who needed to be coordinated, according to Mayer.
Organizing so many volunteers was a gargantuan and sometimes almost-impossible task, so Mayer became something of a coordinator of coordinators. He worked with volunteer leaders to organize tree planting planning and training across the city.
People were tied in to Joplin to help in any way they could, he said.
“After a disaster, you take care of people first, and then their homes—and you go on from there,” Mayer said.
“We would place volunteers with planting assignments,” Mayer recalled about the efforts to reforest Joplin. “One thing that helped us was we could work with young people. A kid 12 years old could be taught to plant trees, and they would take it from there. They had adult supervision, and the adults could plant, too.”
Mayer said the City of Joplin Tree Board came up with a preferred tree list. They worked from that and planted primarily native species, and most were 4-to-6 foot container-native trees.
“You want [tree] variety to help resolve problems down the road,” he said. “We planted 30-plus species to keep the forest healthy for the future.”
Tree species planted included red oak, white oak, redbuds, serviceberry, hornbeam, tuliptree, baldcypress, black tupelo and others.
“One tree we discouraged planting was flowering dogwood,” Mayer said. “It’s a tree that likes shade, and Joplin was a city without shade back then—right tree, right place.”
Residents would sometimes cry when you brought them trees to plant, Mayer recalled. “More than one person said we were planting hope. When you’re able to plant a tree in your yard, you can look past your present troubles to the future.”
Mayer and the volunteers planted over 12,500 trees during that two-year period, plus another 24,000 seedlings.
Retirement, at last
Mayer eventually retired from the assignment a little over two years later, in May of 2014.
“I was OK with that,” he said.
After his departure, the city of Joplin later hired a full-time city forester to continue the city’s reforestation work and oversee the restoration of its urban tree canopy.
Ric and Jeanie finally went to Alaska in the summer of 2014. “I loved it,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in British Columbia. We had a hard time getting there, though. We went due west to the Rockies before we went north and enjoyed a visit with relatives and a rodeo that our niece barrel-raced in. Then we crisscrossed the Continental Divide as we ambled our way up the spine of North America. It took us three weeks to make the Canadian border and just as long to cross into Alaska. Fishing and birdwatching were as great as the scenery.”
“No hurries, no worries,” he added.
Looking back, Mayer said he enjoyed the opportunity to do good work for his community and help reforest Joplin.
“I’m very satisfied about my time spent there,” he said. “Not everybody gets to do a job that makes them feel good.”
He said he’s been back to Joplin since starting his new chapter in life, and he volunteers at least once a season with the city arborist to check on the condition of the trees.
“We started in 2012, so it’s been about three years. The tallest trees are about 20 feet tall today. Everybody who plants trees likes to go back and see how they’re doing,” he said.
“We did better than average [with tree mortality]. We had so many volunteers to water trees, it helped. We also didn’t plant in the summer.”
He said he looks back today upon on his time in Joplin with a sense of accomplishment.
“I think for a lot of people retirement is changing. Now they have the time to do the things they want to do. I look back on that time in Joplin as the first thing I did in retirement.”