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Obituaries

‘Mister Tree’ Jim DeHorn dies at 84; worked to protect, plant city trees

Jim DeHorn, of TreeKeepers, next to a ginkgo tree at Horner Park in 2001. | Sun-Times photo by Ellen Domke

Jim DeHorn knew about trees: how to plant them, how to prune them, how to water them, how to mend a broken branch, how to identify them by their Latin names.

When Charlotte Newfeld wanted to nurture a migratory bird sanctuary near the totem pole at Addison and Lake Shore Drive, it was Jim who told her to protect the oaks — an MVP among trees.

He said oaks have sturdy branches to cradle nests, and that they provide acorns, which draw hungry outdoor creatures.

He knew trees can create little woodland glades in a big city.

“TreeKeeper Jim” DeHorn. | Sun-Times photo by Al Podgorski

“He opened everybody’s eyes to the value of the trees,” said Newfeld, former president of the Lake View Citizens Council and steward of the Bill Jarvis Migratory Bird Sanctuary, 3550 N. Lake Shore Dr. “He was Mr. Tree, and quite a good teacher.”

Mr. DeHorn, known as “TreeKeeper Jim,” died on March 16 in hospice care on the Northwest Side, according to his wife Jean. He was 84 and had been having pulmonary trouble, she said.

A labor organizer by profession, he was graduate No. 159 out of approximately 2,000 people in the 27-year-old “TreeKeepers”” program, said Jerry Adelmann, CEO of Openlands, a conservation group that coordinates the TreeKeepers. They’re citizen foresters who take classes to learn about trees and then volunteer to preserve them on streets and in parks.

And though Mr. DeHorn stood out for riotous mutton chops that made him resemble Santa Claus, he acted more like a no-nonsense lumberjack, according to friends and relatives.

At tree plantings, “Even though he was an older man, he would jump right into the hole and pull that 300-pound ball of burlap into place,” said TreeKeeper Betsy Elsaesser.

Jim DeHorn next to a ginkgo, his favorite tree. | Sun-Times photo by Ellen Domke

After graduating from TreeKeepers in 1993, he volunteered until 1999, when he became a paid coordinator. He organized classes and did planting, pruning and watering in the field. “He always put in much more time, however, than his paid job covered,” Adelmann said. After 2013, he returned to volunteer status, Adelmann said.

“He kept TreeKeepers going when there wasn’t a lot of funding,” said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Chicago’s former commissioner of the environment.

“He moved around to the North Park Village Nature Center, the [Morton] Arboretum, to all the Chicago Park District nature areas and the forest preserves, restoring trees, rebuilding areas that were full of invasive species,” Newfeld said.

Jerome Scott, district forester for the park district, has a degree in forestry. But he said of Jim DeHorn: “I learned almost all my urban tree care from him.”

Mr. DeHorn started volunteering 25 years ago at North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski, said Bob Porter, land manager for the center. “He was here Wednesdays and Sundays for years.”

Young Jim enjoyed nature activities and scouting while growing up near Belmont and Oak Park Avenue, the son of an electrical engineer dad and a mom who worked as a teacher. He attended Locke grade school and Steinmetz High School, where he met his future wife Jean in Latin class.

When they were helping to plan senior prom, “I said, ‘Jim’s going take me, aren’t you, Jim?'” she recalled. “We did go to the prom together, and we were together ever after.” They married in 1955.

Mr. DeHorn, who studied at the University of Illinois, became an organizer for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

The DeHorns bought a Northwest Side home with lots of shade from an oak, a fir, a birch and a couple of Washington Hawthorns. They took their daughters Lisa and Kathy hiking, camping and blueberry-picking, and on many trips to national parks.

“What I remember is walking around the block with him. We would walk slowly and he would teach me all the names of trees,” said Kathy Teuber. His influence contributed to her pursuit of birding, backpacking and snowshoeing in Colorado, where she now lives.

He used to bring Lisa to the Field Museum for a nature program that culminated in reading Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle.”

“I, to this day, credit going through that process for teaching me how to observe things,” said Lisa DeHorn, a birder who enjoys the outdoors at a log-home retreat in Wisconsin.

A celebration of Mr. DeHorn’s life is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. on April 13 at North Park Village Nature Center, where there are plans to plant a ginkgo in his honor, his wife said. He used to wear a ginkgo leaf pin on his TreeKeepers cap because the ancient species, from the time of the dinosaurs, was his favorite tree.

“It’s the first tree,” he once said, “a link between the ferns and pines.”

Jim DeHorn of TreeKeepers examines a branch at the North Park Village Nature Center in 2006. | Sun-Times photo by Al Podgorski