When Patti Brownlee arrived to become principal at Squire John Thomas Elementary School a decade ago, the little school sitting on a low rise on Gretna's east side looked like it sat in a barren prairie desert.
“There wasn't a single tree anywhere to be seen on our campus,” Brownlee said Friday as she rushed about making preparations for the school's annual Arbor Day assembly. “So that year, every class planted a tree with a golden shovel.”
And the tree-planting has continued, in some form or another, every year since. Such that, approaching Thomas Elementary today, ash, maple and birch trees now tower proudly over the building.
The dedication to building the school's tree population earned Brownlee the Gretna Arbor Society's first-ever J. Sterling Morton Award, heretofore given as a tribute to an individual who has promoted the importance of trees for a community's health and beautification.
The honor took Brownlee, who will retire next month after a quarter of a century as an administrator in the Gretna Public Schools, completely by surprise.
“I had no idea,” Brownlee said after the celebration, visibly moved by the presentation of the award. “It was totally unexpected. When I first came to Gretna, the Arbor Day program in the schools was already a tradition. For me, it was just a privilege to carry on that tradition.”
Jim Keepers, chairman of the Arbor Society, said selecting Brownlee as the first recipient of the award was an easy choice.
“Every year, she's made it a priority to plant trees,” he said. “She's always been dedicated to what we've done in the Arbor Society.”
Keepers said the Morton Award, named for the Nebraska pioneer and editor who founded Arbor Day, will be a special recognition, handed out only when the Arbor Society deems an individual worthy.
A potential future Morton Award recipient is Gretna Middle School eighth-grader Troy Scheer, who was the keynote speaker at the celebration.
Scheer is attempting to net his Eagle Scout ranking by creating a certified waystation for migrating monarch butterflies at Thomas, his old elementary school.
Twelve flowerbeds at the school will also be replanted in native wildflowers and grasses under Scheer's direction. He said a chat with Brownlee helped steer him in the direction he's going for the ranking.
“Coming up with the idea, I talked to Mrs. Brownlee and she mentioned that the flowerbeds needed to be replanted soon,” Scheer said. “I also took a trip to Mexico and saw the monarch migration and thought that would help the community and be a way to help with conservation of the butterflies' habitat.”
Scheer expects to begin work on the project soon and complete it by mid-June.
Friday's Arbor Day celebration has been a staple at Thomas Elementary, as in other elementary buildings in Gretna.
In addition to bestowing Brownlee with her award, Keepers also announced Gretna was one of 104 cities in Nebraska to earn the designation of Tree City USA.
Gretna was also one of seven cities in the state to earn the Tree City USA Growth Award, the 17th time the city has earned this recognition for communities going above and beyond in the fields of education, promotion, planning, forging partnerships, planting and maintenance when it comes to trees.
Brownlee summed up what Arbor Day has meant to her and her career with a statement of simple Cornhusker universality that drew appreciative applause from the student body.
“Arbor Day,” she said, “is Nebraska's gift to the world.”