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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.

‘“I put in the landscaping and watering system,” he said. “I have always had a vegetable garden and yard to take care of.”

Still does. He is a man in motion. One morning last week, Freeman didn’t have time to talk on the phone. He was out in the yard.

“He’s out removing trees from around the house now. Oh you can’t imagine what he’s got going,” Pattricia Freeman said. “He said the other day, ‘I’m tired,’ and I said, ‘No wonder.’”

But Freeman isn’t afraid to admit that he’s slowing down. When I asked him how it made him feel to see the school roses transformed under his care, he chuckled.

“It makes me tired,” he said. “I can’t work as long as I used to.”

He’s pulled back on the six fruit trees on the south side of campus. He’s hoping someone else can take on their pruning and care.

But the roses, he guesses there are more than 50 throughout the campus, they are still his domain.

He has a routine. He has two 5-gallon buckets, a small pull cart and a number of difference-sized clippers. He makes is way around the campus, deadheading the roses and checking on them.

‘It’s also good for the morale’

Freeman, a career engineer, knows his way around dirt. Before he did a five-year stint in the Marines and before he got an electrical engineering degree from UC Berkeley, he was a boy on a farm growing up near Amboy, Minnesota.

“It was a poor farm,” he said. “We had about 90 acres and rented another 40 acres a few miles west. We raised corn and grain or oats and barley, alfalfa, raised a lot of chickens, milked cows. Somehow my parents managed to eke it out, but during the early ‘30s, we almost lost the farm.”

That work ethic drives him, but it also sustains him. He has seen some around him lose that spark and fade away.

“They didn’t have any interests, they kind of became sedentary, watched a lot of TV and things, and within five or six years they died. They were gone,” he said.

So for Freeman, his volunteer work is a bit of give and take. He’s giving, but he’s taking away a little bit, too: The hellos from kids, the appreciation of teachers and staff, and a feeling of satisfaction.

“It’s good exercise and it’s good for me, but it’s also good for the morale,” he said. “They appreciate the ambience.”

Two years ago, Hause had a plaque made for the fence that surrounds the area where the fruit trees grow and where Freeman comes to collect and replace his tools every visit.

The signs faces west. It gets beating from the sun. But its message is clear:

Wendell Freeman Orchard.

‘Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.’ Luther Burbank

Thanks for making Burbank bloom, Wendell

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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