WHITTIER — Emmett May has never seen a tree he didn't like.
This amiable maintenance man, 16 years a city employee, has seen quite a few trees in his time. Although he has not kept a running tally, May is hardly going out on a limb when he says he's planted, pruned and pampered tens of thousands of sycamores, magnolias and other leafy varieties that shade this town of 12.8 square miles.
Last year alone, as city tree supervisor, May coordinated the care and feeding of more than 40,000 trees that line Whittier's streets, yards and parks.
It apparently was a job well done. Earlier this month, Whittier was honored by the Nebraska-based National Arbor Day Foundation for its use of trees to beautify the city.
Whittier was one of 10 cities in Los Angeles County, and one of 310 in the United States, named Tree City U. S. A. for 1985.
Two other cities in southeast Los Angeles County, Lakewood and Montebello, were also recognized by the national group.
All three cities received a white and green flag, two road signs and an oversized button inscribed, "Tree City, U. S. A."
For Whittier's May, who has spent half his 46 years fussing with trees, the honor was especially sweet. Yet he refused to take credit for the greening of Whittier.
"I'm just another in a long line of pro-tree people here in Whittier," said May, who came to Southern California from the Midwest in 1963 and took a tree-trimming job with the City of La Habra before moving next door to Whittier.
"I'm just one of the cogs in a long history of tree promoters in this town," May says.
400 New Trees Each Year
It is true he was not the first in this century-old city to take a liking to trees, but he is the current caretaker of the growing tradition. It is a task that commands the time of nine city maintenance workers and costs about $484,000 a year--roughly $11 for each tree.
An average of about 400 new trees are planted in the city each year.
Besides planting and pruning trees along the 193 miles of city streets, May also must enforce the city's tree ordinance--a duty that often takes the toughness of a giant Sequoia. He is often the arbiter of disputes between neighbors over whether a tree has grown too big or its spreading root system is cracking a street, sidewalk or driveway.
It's not an easy job, but May loves it.
"A couple of months ago, we informed a Whittier Heights man that he had to tear down a very old carob tree," recalled May, explaining that the tree's massive roots were cracking the sidewalk. "The man understood, but his 12-year-old son didn't.
"The boy loved that tree. It was his shade tree. It has been there as long as he has been alive," he said. "I had to go out three times to convince the boy it was OK to cut the tree down. It was tough. People get real attached to trees."
May, who studied ornamental horticulture in college and is an annual participant in the Southern California Street Tree Seminar, is one of those people.
He says he's fond of all trees, but acknowledges that one of his favorite stands of trees in Whittier is on Beverly Boulevard near Monte Vista Street. Along that stretch of Beverly, more than 250 lush, green Canary Island pines stand nearly 100 feet tall.
"It's a magnificent collection, probably 80 years old," said May, who sometimes spends several hours a day cruising the city to inspect trees. "Those are good-looking trees."
Because the city was settled in the 1880s, several trees are quite old and have been named state historical monuments. One is a 50-foot-tall walnut tree on the south side of Whittier Boulevard near Painter Avenue.
While May believes every tree has its place, there are several varieties not welcome in parts of the city, particularly the Shammel ash and mulberry trees.
"Those two species have extensive root systems that can tear up a driveway or street in a matter of months," May said. "In a park, they are fine, but we don't encourage residents to plant them along sidewalks."
Both Lakewood and Montebello also have aggressively planted trees in recent years. There are nearly 36,000 trees in Lakewood and more than 20,000 in Montebello, where officials said more than 1,500 trees were planted last year alone.
Herbert Spitzer, of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said trees often improve the quality of life in cities.
"In Southern California, concrete and asphalt is a way of life," said Spitzer, who coordinated the Arbor Day Foundation's recognition program in the county. "Too often, cities have a stark, often bleak look, but trees soften that appearance and make the city more appealing."
May summed up the importance of trees another way:
"When its lunchtime, a great, big old tree gives you a place to rest your back and shade your eyes."