Sandy-Fallen Spruce Finds New Life at Long Beach Township Christmas Tree Lighting

By MICHAEL MOLINARO | Dec 05, 2012
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The Van Werts always dreamed the tall spruce that had grown in the back yard of their North Beach Haven summer home would end up in New York City’s Rockefeller Center for its annual Christmas tree lighting. That dream was dashed following the spruce’s uprooting during Superstorm Sandy, but there was a different happy ending for the fallen specimen.

The Van Werts saw the tree given new life and perhaps more meaning when it became the focal point at the Long Beach Township holiday tree lighting ceremony at the municipal building on Saturday, as a symbol of revitalization and hope on a barrier island heavily damaged by the storm.

“It’s a beautiful tree,” said Skip Van Wert, 66, who added that his wife Andrea and he agreed, “We can’t run this through a chipper. We just can’t.”

Van Wert had served with Long Beach Township Police Chief Mike Bradley on the Surflight Theatre’s board of trustees and contacted him in the days following the storm about using the tree in township holiday celebrations. A week later Van Wert received a call from Butch Hartmann of the Long Beach Township police, who agreed to look at the tree and decided the township would definitely want it for its Christmas tree lighting. The Van Wert family happily agreed to donate the tree, effectively recycling it and saving the township money it would have cost to procure its own.

It was as if it were meant to be, explained Van Wert, based on how the tree was left leaning against a neighbor’s house, causing no damage, rather than falling to the ground and possibly breaking branches, making it less usable. Van Wert was told by a neighbor immediately of the tree’s uprooting and first saw images of it in its new position using Google Maps satellite imagery.

Hartmann and Phil Pollina of Long Beach Township PBA Local #373 organized Saturday’s tree lighting at the ball field in front of the municipal building from 4 to 6 p.m. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus arrived in a fire truck, surprising children, who went on to help decorate the tree.

The township also screened “Hope for Long Beach Island,” a five-minute short film created by Southern Regional High School sophomore Jimmy Ward following Sandy that begins with a montage of news clips and then follows Ward running past a series of familiar LBI landmarks while wearing a T-shirt that reads “Hope.”

Hartmann and others spoke before the lighting, thanking first responders for their work in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Of Hartmann, Van Wert said, “He wanted to see this tree used as a rallying point for stepping forward instead of being stuck in all this sadness and remorse and all the rest they’d been involved with for a few weeks immediately following the storm. He saw the tree as a symbol to kick off the holiday season, of community rebuilding, and of being grateful for having come through this without a tremendous loss of life. There’s a lot to be thankful for.”

In the end Van Wert was more thankful and filled with more joy seeing his family’s tree in the grasses of Long Beach Township’s municipal complex rather than Rockefeller Center.

“It was heartwarming,” he said. “It was bittersweet because we loved that tree – it was magnificent – but if it had to go out, what a way to go. There were so many people there with smiles on their faces. They deserved a bright moment and the tree helped give them that.”

The tree will eventually go on to be recycled once more at the conclusion of the holiday season when it will be chopped into firewood, but not before Van Wert, a wood carver, gets a chunk to craft himself something in remembrance.

“The whole thing happened the way it was supposed to happen,” he said. “Like it was planned this way.”

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