We take them for granted. Driving down East Bay Street or across Calhoun, we don’t really notice the greenery. We keep our eyes on the road.
Speaking of trees ...
Mayo Read isn’t Charleston’s only tree fanatic. Civic leader Jimmy Bailey also has gotten into the business of urban beautification.
Bailey leads a volunteer group of amateur arborists (that includes Read, of course) in an effort titled “10,000 Trees for Charleston.”
The group’s goal is to plant that many trees along entryways to the city: Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, the Glenn McConnell Parkway, Savannah Highway, St. Andrews Boulevard, Old Towne Road, Folly Road and Upper Meeting Street.
Initially, the project will focus on Savannah Highway and Upper Meeting Street, transforming grassy knolls into miniature timberlands, according to Bailey.
The project got a boost in December when Charleston Mayor Joe Riley delivered a $25,000 check into Bailey’s hands at a city council meeting.
Also last month, Tommy Baker, president and CEO of Baker Motor Company, showed his support for the initiative by purchasing 100 oak trees (at about $300 a pop) to give as gifts to businesses and private property owners along Savannah Highway.
When we stroll along historic Tradd Street, south of Broad, we assume it has always been that way.
When we make our way through the residential areas near Hampton Park or in Waggoner Terrace, it never occurs to us that these neighborhoods now boast more trees than they once did.
The greening of Charleston is no mistake; it’s the result of planning and commitment. And perhaps no one has been more influential in purposefully sprucing up the urban landscape than Mayo Read. The Charleston peninsula benefits from around 1,000 trees, mostly live oaks, that Read has planted over the past 35 years, trees that will provide residents with beauty and shade for centuries to come.
Read is no arborist. He’s a trained accountant. The 78-year-old spent the first part of his professional life working as an investment banker, first in Columbia (where he married his wife, Ellen) then in his native Charleston. He earned a certificate in public accounting and spent years managing corporate books, raising two children and admiring nature’s gifts. He was a charter member of the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
Always an outdoorsman and adventurer, Read launched a second career in 1984 when he purchased a small travel agency on Liberty Street. He ran Palmetto Travel for 15 years before selling it.
His career wasn’t the only thing he changed in the first part of the 1980s. The Reads were living on Tradd Street at the time, and Mayo Read thought it too barren. A couple of crape myrtles stood at the corner of Orange Street, but that was about it.
So he called Danny Burbage, the city’s urban forester, who suggested planting more. Read would have to raise the money, of course, $100-$150 per tree. He would need to collect less than $100 per person along the stretch of Tradd he wanted to make greener.
“I started knocking on doors; we easily raised enough money to start planting those trees,” he said.
Myrtles are good street trees, not too big, unlikely to uproot sidewalks. But they don’t provide a lot of shade, and they’re not indigenous to Charleston, something that bothered Read. From now on he would plant mostly oaks.
“That was putting my little toe in the water,” he said of the Tradd Street project. “Then I put my big toe in the water as a result of a conversation with Pug Ravenel.”
Boulevard of oaks
In the late 1980s, Charles “Pug” Ravenel was a recovering politician who ran unsuccessfully for governor (in 1974) and the U.S. Senate (in 1978, against Strom Thurmond). He had returned to his previous career in financial services and remained an influential voice in Charleston.
Ravenel told Read that he didn’t much enjoy driving down East Bay Street. It was too empty, too industrial. Read flew into action, securing support from the mayor’s office and other backers.
It would cost $250 per live oak, and Read intended to plant hundreds of them, from Market Street to Mount Pleasant Street.
“It caught on,” he said of the effort. “People were more than willing to green that barren strip.” In all, about 340 oaks were planted. They are still there, growing.
Burbage thinks back with fondness on that effort, recalling the poetry expressed by Read and Ravenel at the time.
“We know that we will never live to see it, but we would like for our grandchildren to drive down East Bay Street and see live oaks with their limbs meeting in the middle,” Read had said.
The project took three years and raised $156,000 in private and corporate donations, according to Burbage.
“It added dramatically to the character of Easy Bay Street-Morrison Drive,” he said. “These live oaks really soften the view.”
The project led to the formation of the Charles- ton Tree Foundation, which was spearheaded by fellow tree enthusiast John Winthrop and maintained close ties to Burbage.
During the 1990s, the organization planted trees in the “pocket parks” along the Crosstown, the triangular patches of earth adjacent to the roadway that were too small to build on.
When Winthrop stepped aside, Read stepped up and, with help from Peter McGee, ran the foundation.
Together they oversaw the planting of several oaks along Calhoun Street, opposite Roper Hospital, but the Department of Transportation, citing road and sidewalk safety and maintenance issues, stopped the planting project, Read said.
In 2004, the foundation was absorbed by the Charleston Horticultural Society, became a committee of that organization and changed its name to Charleston Trees. In the years since, Charleston Trees has worked with neighborhood associations in Waggoner Terrace, Elliotborough, Cannonborough and Radcliffeborough, providing matching funds for the planting of trees.
“In local government, you come in contact with lots of volunteers, and it’s a great thing. It helps the community tremendously. But never in my 30 years ... have I come across an individual who was so dedicated to his goal of planting as many trees in the city of Charleston as possible,” Burbage said.
Anne Moise, a member of the Charleston Trees committee, said Read was a natural leader, offering direction that no one could dispute.
“When it was time for us to undertake an activity, he gave clear guidance as to what was to be done. Not in a pushy way; he just said it, and it was so,” Moise said. “When we would have our annual oyster roast to earn money for the trees, he would simply say, ‘Each of you sell or buy six tickets.’ And it was done.”
Baseball and pyramids
McGee said Read’s organizational skills are not only applied to tree-planting. They are put to use among friends. “He has organized a group of us: the Baseball Boys,” McGee said.
They go off to a major league game each year, spending a weekend away, “but never across the Mississippi River.”
The group often has included Mayor Joe Riley, Alex Sanders and other prominent baseball fans. “Mayo’s fascinated with baseball architecture,” McGee said. His friend likes to study the park: its structure, its amenities, its location and orientation.
In the 1990s, as the millennium approached, McGee and Read decided they’d like to welcome the new century while looking at the Egyptian pyramids. Read owned a travel agency, after all, and he could make it happen.
They arrived with their spouses on New Year’s Eve, toured Cairo, then headed through Giza to the desert border where the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure stood, protected by the Great Sphinx.
“When the hour approached, we were all inside the ... hotel ballroom, and we all raised Cain about it,” McGee said. “Mayo opened the back door, and we stood with the workers.”
They looked back more than 4,500 years at the remains of ancient history as the new epoch arrived.
Riley, citing Read’s environmentalism, membership on the Charleston Symphony Orchestra board and business acumen, called his friend “a renaissance man.”
“He’s interested in a wide range of things, from the wonderful intricacies of the art of baseball to horticulture and the arts,” Riley said. “He’s a great guy, pleasant company, a wonderful citizen, thoughtful, civic-minded, positive and progressive in his thinking.” And once was a good tennis player to boot, Riley added.
The mayor, once a client of Read’s travel agency, still possesses his Palmetto Travel coffee mug, he said.
About 18 years ago, the Reads moved to Wadmalaw Island, where they were engulfed by trees. About three years ago, they settled at Bishop Gadsden, where Mayo Read advises the administration on a tree project the retirement community has undertaken. A bunch of maples haven’t been faring well in the damp, sandy soil and warm air of the Lowcountry, so Bishop Gadsden is in the process of replacing them with oaks and other indigenous varieties.
Read, 78, who once walked door to door, convincing residents and small-business owners to chip in a few dollars to line their streets with trees, now suffers from a bit of arthritis in his left foot that has reduced his mobility.
But he’s still an active member of the Charleston Trees committee, and he’s as eager as ever to improve Charleston’s cityscape.
Trees, he pointed out, offer substantial benefits. They sequester carbon dioxide, provide shade and reduce the heat island effect (which is the tendency for urban areas to become hotter than their immediate surroundings). They improve the aesthetics of the urban environment. They absorb rainfall and inhibit storm-water runoff. They diversify and help retain the soil.
Yvonne Evans, chairwoman of Charleston Trees, said the committee continues to have designs on Calhoun Street, the eastern end of which could use a few crape myrtles.
“In the eyes of DOT, crape myrtles are not trees,” she said. DOT, therefore, will not object to their planting.
And the group plans to add trees to the East Side, the West Side and the upper Meeting Street and Upper King Street areas. All of the work is a consequence of Read’s initial commitment, Evans said.
“He has a passion you don’t find easily. ... He cares a lot for his community.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
Yvonne Evans (left), chairwoman of Charleston Trees, with Mayo Read and Danny Burbage at the Nathaniel Russell House, where an oak recently was planted in Read’s honor.×
Shovelers Ellen Read (from left), Mollie Fair, Sis Marshall and Mayo Read smile for the camera during the recent Arbor Day planting at the Nathaniel Russell House.×