With 67 second graders from Wilson Elementary watching from the lawn in front of Picken Hall on Thursday morning, Fort Hays State University grounds supervisor Allen Rohr and grounds technician Trevor Deets slid the root ball of a Bur Oak sapling into a newly dug hole.

Speaking with a microphone to be heard above the rustling breeze at the city’s 2019 Arbor Day Observance, retired Kansas forester Jim Strine shared his expertise on trees.

“For you second graders, come back here in 10, 20 years and see how big this tree has grown, you’ll be surprised,” said Strine, pointing to a full grown burr oak nearby, about 20 inches in diameter. “That’s a Bur Oak, so that is what this tree will look like in the future.”

Gathered under the leafless canopies of a pecan and black walnut, not yet budding, Strine and other speakers on hand for the occasion addressed the crowd of second graders and their parents, FHSU students, and others attending the observance.

Beating the rain that would come a little later in the afternoon, Rohr and Deets shoveled mellow soil around the root ball of the newly planted Bur Oak.

Hays Beautification Committee member Margie Hammerschmidt told the kids that someday they’ll see the results of Thursday’s effort.

“You’re in second grade, and Jim said in 10 years you ought to come back and see this tree,” Hammerschmidt said. “That’s about the time you’ll be coming to school perhaps at Fort Hays State. So when you’re a freshman, make sure you look up this tree. Look to see how large it is, because you were here when this baby was first planted.”

Having grown up on Sixth Street just east of the university, Hammerschmidt remembers riding across campus when she was a kid. Her older brother delivered the newspaper to students on campus and Hammerschmidt tagged along Sunday mornings.

“What I loved about it was being able to ride my bicycle in the quad” among the canopy of trees, she said, noting she still recalls it as a fond memory: “The air is perfectly still and the birds are just starting their songs. It is a glorious, glorious experience,” Hammerschmidt said.

Wilson teacher Betsy Forinash said the three classes of second graders attending have been studying about Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl. Before the start of Thursday’s program at noon, the kids ate lunch picnic-style on the lawn, and high-fived FHSU’s Victor E. Tiger.

As the school has for many years, Wilson Elementary students participated in the 2019 National Garden Clubs Smokey Bear poster contest as a part of conservation education. The local contest is spearheaded locally by Brenda Slaughter, president of the Prairie Garden Club.

“Smokey Bear is the symbol of fire protection,” explained club member Pat Thibault. “He has educated generations of Americans since 1944, when the first poster was prepared. This campaign is the longest continuous running campaign in the U.S. history. This is the 75th year of Smokey Bear.”

In 1971, Woodsy Owl joined the campaign as the symbol of conservation and recycling, reminding everyone to Lend a Hand in the Care of our Land, Thibault said.

Thibault announced the winners of the contest. Wilson second-grader Lily Dickman took first Place in Hays, as well as winning first place for second grade statewide in Kansas.

Dickman was pleased with the Smokey Bear stuffed figure she was awarded. She said she likes oak trees, and that trees have a place in her life.

“Trees are like windbreaks for our house, so when it’s really windy the wind doesn’t hit us,” said Dickman, who lives on a farm south of Hays.

Second place went to Boston Zimmerman, and third place to Ellie Dreher.

All the second graders’ posters will be on display April 26 in the window of Tri-Central Office Supply Inc., 1101 Main, during the Hays Arts Council’s Spring Art Walk.

While Arbor Day nationally is the last Friday in April, Mayor Henry Schwaller IV was on hand to officially declare Thursday as Arbor Day in Hays.

“Why do we plant trees? What do trees do for us?” Schwaller asked the kids.

“They make air,” said one student.

“Oxygen,” piped up another.

“They make medicine,” said another.

“Fruits,” added another.

“They make shade,” said another.

Jami Seirer, district forester in Hays with the Kansas Forest Service, awarded the city of Hays the Tree City USA Award.

“This is our 40th year as a Tree City USA. That means they have to do certain things, like prune so many trees, plant so many trees, they have to have community volunteers as part of the committee members, they have to spend so much money on trees per person. And the city of Hays has done that 40 years in a row,” she said. “That makes the city of Hays one of the oldest tree cities in the entire state of Kansas.”

There are 12 committee members on the Hays Tree City USA committee, and in the past year they put in 80 hours of volunteer time. The city spent $4.57 per resident on tree care, planted more than 500 trees, pruned more than 200, and removed 75, Seirer said.

“That’s a lot of work going on by our Parks Department,” she said.

This is the third year that FHSU has been named a tree campus, Seirer said, also having met the criteria.

Troy Miller with the First United Methodist Church gave an invocation and a benediction for the program.

“We humbly acknowledge that while we can do the planting, only you can do the growing,” Miller said. “As we plant a tree today, we do so as visionaries, believing that this small tree will grow to be a token, a symbol, a beacon of our faith to future generations, that they might see your word fulfilled and your promise kept, that everyone will sit under their own tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

As the crowd waited for the planting to finish, Striner spoke a little about the bur oak, describing it as a large, relatively long-lived tree. It’s sturdy, he said, and very seldom broken by wind, ice or snow loads. The acorns it sheds are great wildlife food for deer, squirrels and turkey. Native Americans used the acorns as a substitute for flour.

“So if you’re thinking about planting a tree, and you’ve got a big space, consider planting a bur oak,” Strine said. “You have a hard time going wrong with it.”

Rohr, raking dirt into the hole, told Strine they had about three inches of clearance in the hole around the root ball.

“So it gives those roots some room to go into fresh soil,” Rohr said.

A lot of tree problems are due to the tree being planted improperly, Strine said, saying make the hole big enough to accommodate the root system, but not too deep. And tamp the soil in to eliminate air pockets around the root system.

“Make sure it’s straight up and down,” he said, “and if there’s more than one leader on the top of the tree, use pruners to eliminate the extras.”

A Y at the top will become a weak point, where it can break off or split.

“That’s about the only pruning we do on young trees,” he said.

There’s no need to fertilize young trees either, Strine said.

“If a tree site is so poor that you’ve got to fertilize it, maybe you shouldn’t be planting trees there,” he said. “If you look around campus here you’ll see a lot of nice trees. Keep in mind this is a really good growing site, we’re out of the wind for the most part, we’ve got good deep soils. Trees that do good on campus may not do that well, say like, in the north part of Hays, where we’ve got far shallower soils.”