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Stuart J. Sperber, 70; expert at growing trees, nursery innovator helped family business expand

September 15, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Stuart J. Sperber, a pioneer of the practice of growing trees in wooden boxes, which enabled year-round planting and helped his Calabasas-based landscaping company develop into a nursery industry giant, has died. He was 70.

Sperber, who co-founded ValleyCrest Tree Co. with his brother, died from throat cancer Sept. 7 at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, said his brother, Burton Sperber.

"Stuart was an innovator and a legend -- these are big words but they apply," said Bruce Pherson, an executive with Boething Treeland Farms, another leading California nursery that also was founded in the mid-20th century in the San Fernando Valley.

After Stuart Sperber started growing boxed trees in the early 1960s, he expanded his commercial forest by leasing hundreds of acres of land along Southern California freeways and under power lines. The idea grew out of the brothers' early work landscaping freeways, including much of Interstate 5.

"Almost no one was growing trees in boxes back then, so he really was a forward thinker," said Denne Goldstein, publisher of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine. "Prior to that, trees were grown in a field and then dug up and wrapped in burlap."

Sperber also became expert at moving large, mature trees and spoke about them as if they were works of art. A prized date palm in a Glendale frontyard that his company paid thousands for in the early 1980s was "a Picasso" or "a Rembrandt" with an art-worthy price tag: $85,000.

Within the collegial world of landscape nurseries, Sperber "was probably as knowledgeable a tree person as there is," his brother said. "People sought him out. If the tree business had celebrities, he would be one."

His tree-moving projects were often in the limelight.

For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the company was given a week to find two 35-foot bird of paradise specimens that flanked the 85 pianos at the opening ceremony. When Knott's Berry Farm needed magnolias for a Roaring '20s attraction, ValleyCrest came up with a dozen that were at least 25 feet tall.

In the late 1980s, the company uprooted about 1,500 trees from housing areas in Lake Sherwood in Ventura County and replanted them along the tony development's golf course -- at a cost of $6 million, The Times reported in 1993.

"We're in the time business," Sperber said in The Times in 1985, referring to the company's ability to make the new look old by transplanting often massive trees.

"We do God's work," Sperber told Forbes magazine in 1998. "We really do."

Stuart Jack Sperber and his twin sister, Deanna Jill, were born Sept. 23, 1936, in Los Angeles and moved to North Hollywood the next year with their parents, Lewis and Martha Sperber, and older brother, Burton.

Lewis Sperber was a violinist who opened a retail nursery on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood.

In 1949, 19-year-old Burton paid $700 for another neighborhood nursery, renamed it Valley Crest Landscape and began to benefit from the post-World War II building boom in the San Fernando Valley. Stuart spent his teenage years working in the nursery.

When he joined the Army in 1956, Sperber was stationed at Camp Hanford in Richland, Wash., and charged with landscaping the base.

He asked his wife, Leslie, to marry him the day after their first date, which was arranged by their parents. Married for 44 years, they raised their family in Northridge and later moved to Calabasas.

After studying ornamental horticulture and earning a degree from Cal Poly Pomona, Sperber officially joined the family business about 1960 and soon established the tree division on a three-acre parcel on Sepulveda Boulevard in the northern San Fernando Valley.

It is one of several divisions of ValleyCrest Cos., which is one of the largest privately owned landscaping companies in the U.S. and has 100 locations.

Sales will top $900 million this year, according to Burton Sperber , the company's chief executive officer.

"What is most gratifying to me is that my brother and I were able to work nearly 50 years together, side by side," Burton Sperber said. "We never had a harsh word with each other. We were buddies."

In addition to his wife and siblings, Sperber is survived by his children, Adam, Rochelle and Julie, and seven grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to weSPARK Cancer Support Center, www.wespark.org, which was founded by his niece; or the American Cancer Society San Fernando Unit, 4940 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite 301, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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