Monday, November 29, 2010

Volunteer Profile: Paul Strong

A city is only as good as its people. Each day, many unsung volunteers labor behind the scenes to make American Fork a better place for all of us. Here is the story of one of them.

This is a true story. I moved to American Fork in 1998. I had left the state nine years earlier, and in my absence the orchards on University Parkway, east of I-15, had given way to a bevy of big box retailers. I was sorry for this, and when the clerk in the post office, the day I went to arrange for mail delivery, asked how I found Utah, I said, "I can't believe how many trees have come down in the last decade."

The clerk's head sprang up and his eyes flashed with alarm. "What trees?" he said. "Where?" He was on the verge of leaping over the counter, electric green super suit peeking out from beneath his postal uniform, to defend the fallen trees until I said, "Orem." At this, his reflexes abated and the affable clerk stood once again before me.

This is my first memory of American Fork and my first memory of Paul Strong, champion and defender of American Fork's urban weldt, a premier example of public service, political endurance, and creative vision.

Born and raised in American Fork, Paul has spent all his life here and half of it, 27 years, on the City's Beautification and Shade Tree Committee. For 27 years, he has been a fount of ideas and a quiet but driving force in seeing them through to completion.

For the last four years, he chaired the committee. Earlier this year, he stepped down as chair, though he continues as a member, and on that day I asked him to share highlights from the first 27 years. Here's what I learned.

Asked to name the committee's major accomplishments, he rattled off a long list: Main Street's Pocket Park, an annual Arbor Day observance, the parks upgrade, the attainment of Tree City status, the Yard of the Month program, the creation of a City flag, the Main Street benches and trash receptacles, hundreds of trees planted in the City and thousands more given to school children.

Asked to recall the high points during those years, his eyes lit up as he told about the days of Mary Fox, who preceded him as chair. "She had a way of shaking money out of people," he said, and these people included the City Council. One year she put in a budget request of $40,000 and, to the committee's amazement, received the full amount. This was the money that placed the benches, the trash receptacles, and the Pocket Park in downtown.

Then he shared the low point. He was brand new to the committee, which mercilessly tasked him with the problem of a nuisance property. Next to one of the City's wells, on private property, stood a dead and decaying tree, a threat to public safety. Paul gamely knocked on the door of the owner and met a small, feeble elderly woman. As best he could, he asked whether something could be done about the tree. To his great chagrin, he received news the next day that the woman had passed away. For years after that, the committee teased him relentlessly, saying, "If you want to kill somebody, send Paul."

Perhaps this experience helped to prepare him for the challenges he would face while chairing the committee during what has been called the "Great Recession." Gone was the silver-tongued Mary Fox; gone was the well-oiled City budget. During Paul's tenure, the most he ever saw in his budget was $3,000, and most years even this amount was frozen. Undeterred, he pressed on, using the time and the committee's energy to propose and pass a tree ordinance, to find grants for Arbor Day trees, and to help the City finally achieve Tree City status.

Myself, I would be tempted to call it good after 27 years, but Paul has staying power. I asked what he would like to see the committee accomplish in the next ten years, and when I heard his list, I decided to fall in line behind him.

Here's the current wish list:

-- The return of the Main Street flower pots
-- A solution for the Main Street trees (the committee envisions large planter boxes which can be moved to accommodate the merchants' needs for visibility)
-- Updated Christmas decorations for Main Street
--"Welcome to American Fork" signs at the major entrances to the city
-- Better protection for trees in the City parks.

If you have more ideas and would like to be part of this effort, the Beautification and Shade Tree Committee can use your help. Further information about the committee, its meeting schedule, and its new leadership can be found under the "Boards and Commissions" tab at the City Web site.

You don't have to stay for 27 years, but you're welcome to.