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Southern Minn. businessman aims to plant hardy oaks all over city

Bill Keitel's grandchildren, Amos (left) and Sebastion, are perched in an oak tree in his backyard. Submitted photo1 / 2
Bill Keitel's grandson, Amos, poses for a photo in the tree house built around an oak tree in the Keitels' backyard. Special to Forum News Service2 / 2

WORTHINGTON, Minn.— With snow blanketing the Minnesota landscape and frigid wind chills keeping many indoors, thoughts of lazy days shaded by the summer sun are perhaps buried deep under cap-covered heads.

However, for a Worthington man leading a campaign to add more summertime shade to the far southern Minnesota community there is no time like the present to view the Worthington landscape and choose a spot to plant a mighty oak tree.

Working alongside the city and the local Chamber of Commerce, Bill Keitel has launched the Silent Oak Society, a program to encourage the planting of new oak trees throughout town.

Inspired by the ongoing bench sponsorship program in Worthington, in which people sponsor benches to be placed along the walking trails or in city parks, Keitel hopes to see new trees sprout up along those trails, in the parks or on other city-owned property.

For a $250 contribution, people may choose a Burr, Swamp or White oak tree and indicate where they would like it planted, working with city forester Scott Rosenberg on a location that avoids underground cables, pipes, power lines, boulevards and sidewalks. The trees will be purchased at approximately three inches in diameter and approximately 10 to 15 feet tall, giving them a good start. All of the trees will be planted and maintained by the city.

"There won't be a plaque, there won't be acknowledgement, there will be the satisfaction that you were able to provide shelter and shade for the present and future generations," Keitel said with a nod to the naming of the Silent Oak Society.

The grandson of a wholesale lumberman, Keitel said his grandfather's dying wish — that people not bring flowers to his funeral, but instead plant trees — made him more conscious and cognizant of the impact trees have on the landscape.

More than 30 years ago, he planted an acorn in his own backyard, watching it grow into a towering oak tree with limbs that, four years ago, were large enough to support a treehouse for the grandchildren. Oak trees can live to be 400 to 600 years old.

"They're not as slow-growing as people would like to think," Keitel shared, adding, "Oak trees cast the best shade of most any tree."

They are also a hardy tree. The ice storm that hit Worthington in April 2013 caused significant damage to many trees in the community, but Keitel's brother-in-law, a plant pathologist visiting Worthington during the storm, noticed immediately the oak trees suffered no damage.

"Oak branches come off at right angles to the trees, which makes them much stronger," Keitel shared. The hardiness, as well as the success in planting oak trees attributed to his choice for tree plantings.

"The premise behind (this project) is there are a number of people who have lived gainful, productive lives in this community who would like to do something without accolades or acknowledgement," Keitel said. "I think it's a really neat way for people who want to ... express their appreciation to the city because of the benefits they've received from this community."

Already, he has received favorable comments about the project and has heard from several people who have already chosen a spot to sponsor an oak tree.

"It's our hope that this coming spring, when the time is appropriate, we will plant those trees," he said. "The exciting part of this is it's not just a tree — perhaps we could plant a grove also."

Citing the old Chinese proverb, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

"I think it's a fun project and I'm excited to see how it transpires," he said.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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