Grisamore: Memory of ‘Bush Tree’ planted forever

March 22, 2014 

Donnie Wayne Churchwell never could have missed hearing about his proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

His mother would not let him.

He had no sooner put down his shovel and picked up his Macon Telegraph when his mother, the late Margaret Churchwell, called to let him know he also was mentioned in a story on a section front of The Atlanta Constitution.

“She used to tell people George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and her son stole a cherry tree,” he said, laughing.

For the record, Donnie Wayne did not steal one of the most famous Yoshino cherry trees ever planted in Third Street Park.

He simply was following orders to move it.

Besides, the statute of limitations has run out. The tree was ceremoniously planted by Vice President George H.W. Bush 11 days before the start of the second annual Cherry Blossom Festival in March 1984.

President Ronald Reagan had been invited, but he could not attend, so he sent the vice president on his behalf. More than 1,000 people stood shoulder to shoulder in the park to watch as Bush praised the festival, then shoveled a dirt into the hole where a Yoshino cherry tree was planted near the stage.

It was just a few feet from the park’s southeast corner at Third and Cherry. It was a symbolic, made-to-order photo op during the election-year primaries. The location on the corner was never intended to be permanent. It was planned for convenience, saving Bush a few steps and putting the Secret Service detail at ease, since the vice president would not have to walk through a huge crowd.

The next day, Donnie Wayne, who was a supervisor with the city’s Parks and Cemeteries Department (now under Public Works), took a crew to help dig up what would go down in festival lore as the infamous “Bush Tree.”

“Somebody came over and asked if I was stealing it,” Donnie Wayne said. “And I told him we weren’t ‘stealing it.’ We were moving it.”

Yes, they were moving it. They just didn’t tell anybody where.

A few days later, the headline on the Telegraph read: “Bush’s cherry tree: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

For years, accounts of the vice president’s visit reported that the tree had been moved to an “undisclosed location.”

Since this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Bush Tree, I asked Donnie Wayne to point out the mysterious “undisclosed location.” It was about halfway down the sidewalk from the ceremonial spot.

For almost a generation, that tree provided shade for folks who stood in line for free cherry ice cream and never knew of its long-ago celebrity.

Bush was later elected president, watched his son (George W.) elected president twice, and another son (Jeb) is now being touted as a possible presidential candidate. Bush will be 90 in June.

Meanwhile, the tree grew and prospered in anonymity.

It has now gone on to that great woodpile in the sky and has been replaced by a younger Yoshino.

Donnie Wayne may be able to claim a small measure of notoriety because of the tree, but it was not the only one that carried his green thumbprints.

In 1974, he went to work for his father-in-law, Charles “Red” O’Neal, who was head of the Parks and Cemeteries Department. O’Neal was famous for his beautification efforts in the city, particularly with roses. During his tenure, he planted more than 7,000 roses and other flowers throughout the city, including 135 varieties of roses in a garden at Central City Park.

His department kept Macon’s parks immaculate, contributing to its self-proclaimed designation as a City in a Park. He also saved the taxpayers money by personally building the lawnmowers used by city workers.

O’Neal’s daughter, Charlene, is married to Donnie Wayne. O’Neal died in 1999, and the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission gives an award named in his honor at the Cherry Blossom volunteer luncheon every year.

He was close friends with William A. Fickling Sr., who bestowed the city with more than 120,000 Yoshino cherry trees over his lifetime.

“We planted thousands of them,” Donnie Wayne said. “By the time the festival got started (in 1983), we already had more than Washington, D.C. (home of the National Cherry Blossom Festival).

“We planted them in Rose Hill and almost every park. We would plant them in clusters because they looked prettier,” he said. “They want to grow like shrubs, but you’ve got to make them grow like trees.”

For many years, Donnie Wayne accompanied Carolyn Crayton, a festival founder, to Atlanta to present cherry trees to Georgia lawmakers. And he was responsible for preparing the huge Japanese ishi-doro decorative lantern for the ceremonial lighting at the opening of the festival.

But the Bush Tree?

It was extra special to have his name planted along with it in history.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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