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Scott Wilson dies at 89; horticulturist founded North East Trees

Wilson was known for helping at-risk teenagers find work in environmental restoration programs.

November 12, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Scott Wilson's group, North East Trees, has helped create 35 mini-parks around Los Angeles.
Scott Wilson's group, North East Trees, has helped create 35 mini-parks… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Scott Wilson, an ardent horticulturist known for his pledge to plant five trees a day for the rest of his life and his commitment to helping at-risk teenagers find employment in environmental restoration programs, has died. He was 89.

Wilson was clipping red blossoms from a firewheel tree in the rose garden of his Eagle Rock home to decorate his church when he lost consciousness and fell Nov. 5, said Mark B. Kenyon, executive director of North East Trees, a nonprofit environmental organization Wilson founded in 1989.

Paramedics took Wilson to Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where he died Monday, Kenyon said. The cause of death has not been determined.

"I believe this is how Scott might have chosen his final act to be: in service to his community — and in a tree," Kenyon said in a statement.

Wilson, a retired teacher and landscape architect, launched North East Trees by planting 700 oaks at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Since then the organization's staff of foresters, designers and educators has helped plant 70,000 trees, including native oaks and sycamores, throughout the Los Angeles area.

"It's not about how many trees you plant," Wilson said in a recent interview. "It's about the right tree in the right place and about how many of those trees live."

North East Trees specializes in bringing together grants and small armies of volunteers to help low-income communities create parks, plant trees along neighborhood streets and partner with city and county agencies on water-harvesting projects. In step with Wilson's vision, the organization helped create 35 mini-parks, many of them linking communities along the Los Angeles River's concrete channel with hiking trails and bike paths.

"Scott was not one to blow his own horn," Kenyon said. "But his legacy will go on for hundreds of years because of the trees he planted and the lives of the people he touched."

Born in Salem, Ore., in 1922, Wilson had two sisters and a brother in a family that managed a pear orchard and a cemetery. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, earning a degree in horticulture in 1950.

"My first memories of Dad include helping him water potted plants," recalled his son, Ron Wilson.

Scott Wilson had been a passionate advocate of the benefits of trees since he started teaching high school in the early 1950s, said his daughter, Christine Richards.

"Dad was touting hydroponics, ecological balance and using the environment to make the world a better place long before it was cool to do so," she recalled with a laugh. "His real talent was instilling a love of nature in young men and women. Hundreds of kids have grown up under his mentorship."

Wilson, who held master's degrees in agricultural education and landscape architecture, taught horticulture and mathematics for three decades at Eagle Rock, Crenshaw and North Hollywood high schools before retiring in 1982.

But his environmental work was far from over. Seven years later, Wilson launched North East Trees with dreams of planting an urban forest. In the group's first outing, Wilson led a band of volunteers bearing buckets, shovels and hundreds of saplings up a barren hill known as Mt. Fiji among students at Occidental College.

North East Trees quickly mushroomed into an organization that serves as a catalyst for tree plantings, environmental education and revitalization projects throughout the Los Angeles area.

Wilson's proposed projects included a massive tree planting at Ascot Park, a nature preserve of steep slopes, oak forests and tall brush northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

"He was 89, but raring to go with our proposal to plant thousands of seedlings from native seed stock in Ascot Park," Kenyon said. "The plan includes building a small nursery in the parking lot near its entrance and engaging local high school students in helping to plant and grow those trees by preparing the ground and designing and installing irrigation systems."

North East Trees helped guide Omar Delgado to a career in horticulture after he heard about the program in 2006 from his biology teacher at Wilson High School.

"I worked at North East Trees the next summer, and it was wonderful: planting trees, putting in irrigation systems, building parks along the Los Angeles River and speaking to communities about improving the environment," said Delgado, who works as a horticulturist at North East Trees and as a part-time firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.

"Scott was a gentle, generous and powerful teacher," he said.

Besides his son and daughter, Wilson is survived by his wife, Clarli.

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