99-year-old volunteer keeps the roses at Santa Rosa’s Burbank elementary looking sharp
Wendell Freeman has for more than 15 years tended the rose gardens at Luther Burbank Elementary School in downtown Santa Rosa. He prunes, he deadheads and he fertilizes. They bloom under his care.
But it’s about more than the roses.
Years ago, he was given a key to the campus gate so he could come and do his work and lock up behind himself when he leaves. He drives from his home in Oakmont all year round.
On a visit in June, it was 79 degrees as Freeman, wearing denim pants, a plaid work shirt and a straw hat to shade his head from the sun, pulled two 5-gallon buckets in a wheeled cart to different spots on campuses where the roses grow.
Apart from his dedicated care of the roses, Freeman’s connection to the campus isn’t an obvious one. He didn’t teach here, and his kids and grandkids didn’t attend Burbank. Still, he is rooted as firmly on the South A Street campus as the roses he tends.
He comes because he recognized a need. He comes because his work is appreciated. He comes because he makes a difference.
His impact is bigger than the gardens he tends.
“Everyone loves flowers. Everyone loves roses,” longtime Burbank teacher Ross Hause said. “But it’s pretty cool for kids to see what service looks like.”
Wendell Freeman turned 99 on Aug. 27.
“I just started working on them,” he said. “I like to be doing something that is worthwhile. The teachers appreciate it. It makes their environment better. It is something I can do that makes me feel good and they like it.”
Freeman came to know the folks at Luther Burbank Elementary years ago from his affiliation with Oakmont Kiwanis.
The service club had sort of adopted the school in the mid-2000s, sponsoring leadership programs and book drives, beautification days and anything then-principal Patty Turner asked of them.
“They embraced us,” Turner, now Director of Risk Management & Safety for Santa Rosa City Schools, said. “They showered us with gifts. Any way you turned, it was another way for them to help us.”
At Burbank, nearly 86% of the school’s almost 320 students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to the latest numbers from the California Department of Education.
After one of the Kiwanis-supported beautification days, Freeman noticed the maintenance in between those twice- or three-times a year efforts would slide a little.
So, he started showing up on his own.
“He’s like a saint. The kids adore him,” said Jay Cobb, a past president of Kiwanis and fellow volunteer with Freeman. “I am absolutely staggered that he is able to still do that, yet to some degree, it doesn’t surprise me.”
Although Freeman leans to the quiet side, going about his work with little fanfare, the school community took notice. Not just of the rehabbed flower beds and rose gardens, but the time, energy and care Freeman was investing in the campus.
And, in them.
More than one person used the word “model” for Freeman. A model of giving, a model of hard work, a model of diligence.
“He’s not just there during the season; he’s here all year long,” fifth-grade teacher Guy Cottle said. “It’s infectious, the energy he carries into the garden. He exemplifies everything we try to teach."
The roses sometimes make their way into the classroom. Cottle has his kids send a rose home in a handmade card on Mother’s Day. They are cut for luncheons or events, their blooms bringing brightness.
But they provide other lessons, too.
“As a teacher it inspires me, it’s invigorating to say, ‘What’s my purpose?’” said Hause, who teaches a fifth- and sixth-grade combination class. “Yes, I want them to do reading and do math, but what I really want is for them to build their character.”
In Freeman, kids can see the way character is built, how it is embodied, Hause said.
That said, Hause isn’t afraid of lightening the mood. Sometimes he’ll ask his kids to give Freeman an ovation or a golf clap, to somehow make a small, loving scene while he works.
“Just to make him embarrassed because he’s so humble,” Hause said. “He’s not there for the fame. He’s out there in the worst, hottest part of the day busting his tail. He’s not there for the cheap and easy, ‘Look what I’m doing.’”
‘You can’t imagine what he’s got going’
Freeman has a long volunteering resume.
He led the committee charged with building a classroom addition at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa. When that was completed, he found himself leading much of the grounds work.
“I stayed on, and for about 18 years, maintained that,” he said.
He was suited for the work. When he and his wife, Pattricia, moved to Oakmont in 1987, the bought a corner lot with exactly zero landscaping. Freeman wanted to put it in himself.