It’s been a long, hot summer. Don Tapio’s fir trees are bursting with new growth, and growing fast.
Armed with shears and a sharp knife, Don ventures into the marching rows of trees on his farm near Rochester, Wash., to carefully snip, prune, and shape, ensuring these firs will have that classic holiday look come Christmas.
The annual round of care is hard work, but also great fun for Don, who loves the labor of maintaining his family’s 115-year-old farm.
“It changes every day,” he said.
Don grew up here, before the firs, when it was a dairy and berry farm. Over his 36-year career as a WSU Extension agent, this place has been a home base and a living laboratory that helped him understand what fellow growers and landowners face.
Today, it’s also his principal means of helping his community, and paying back a gift from 50 years ago that changed his life.
Tall, slim, and fair-haired with an easy smile, Elwood Walter Kalin Sr., was more than just a professor to his horticulture students at WSU.
“We were like family,” said Don.
Elwood—“Woody” to his friends—constantly sought ways for his students to learn and grow, regardless of how that affected his time or his pocketbook.
Every Saturday, he drove his students to the wholesale floral houses in Spokane to learn how to judge flowers. The team he coached traveled the Northwest and became a national winner.
Back home on Don’s farm, money was tight. His father, John, worked at an Olympia plywood plant to pay the bills. During Don’s sophomore year, John lost his job, jeopardizing his son’s budding college career.
Woody came to the rescue, arranging for Don to receive a scholarship from the Washington Federation of Garden Clubs.
The scholarship “was a godsend,” said Don. “It came at just the right time, and gave me enough to stay in school until my dad could find work again. I never forgot it.”
Later, Woody was instrumental in helping Don get a summer internship with Pierce County Extension.
“When I went to WSU, I had never been off the farm,” Don said. “Woody sensed that. He wanted to get students like me out there to see what the world is all about.”
That experience led directly to a more-than-30-year career as an Extension agent in King, Snohomish, Grays Harbor, Pacific, and Thurston Counties, as well as with the Washington Department of Agriculture.
The pay forward
Don’s Extension work kept him busy and on the move. But when he was back on the Palouse during graduate school, he would often visit and chat with Woody.
“At the time, he was getting closer to retirement, and we eventually lost touch,” Don said. Woody died of cancer in 1993.
But Don did find a way to say thank you. Over the years, his Extension work often brought him in touch with gardening clubs and the nascent WSU Master Gardener program. Supporting these groups as much as possible became a point of honor for Don. Because he had never forgotten the help they had provided, through Woody, to keep him in school.
“My goodness, from King County, to Pierce, Snohomish, to Grays Harbor, there must have been hundreds of speaking engagements,” he said. “I always did them as a payback to the clubs, and to Woody.”
For the past ten years, Don has also donated his trees and cuttings to the Olympia Garden Club for their annual holiday wreath sales. Last year, the sales provided nearly $5,000 in grants to elementary, middle, and high school gardening programs in Thurston County communities like Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, and Tenino.
The sales also help fund the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs scholarship for students.
Don’s donations have made a huge difference, said Darlene Miller, Olympia Garden Club’s grant chairwoman.
“Don is the epitome of ‘paying it forward,’” she said.
Through his evergreen gifts, Don tends to young people’s growth.
“It has come full circle,” Don said.
Woody would be proud.