On Monday, January 30, 250 people from across the country gathered at the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon, to celebrate the life of David Wesley Odom. You can listen to a recording of the service or watch this video, made by Plant A Wish, which reveals David’s humor and passion for trees.
David was born in Manchester, Connecticut, on September 10, 1970, and passed away in Portland, Oregon, on January 14, 2012. Friends and family who attended the January 30 service knew David from when he attended school in New Mexico and Montana, and from the years he lived in Connecticut, New York, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon.
The memorial service, punctuated by barks from David’s dogs, Pepe and Frida, was facilitated by First Unitarian Church Minister Kate Lore. She opened the service by lighting a candle and noting that when a person takes his life, he’s calling out for more life, not less.
Friends of Trees Neighborhood Trees Manager Whitney Dorer, like David, was raised Unitarian. She read the “credo” that David wrote in 1985. “I believe in friendships,” he wrote, and “I believe that people can do anything if they only tried hard enough.” The 14-year-old David concluded, “Last but not least, I believe that things that grow in the woods are more nourishing for you.”
David’s brother John described growing up with his brother. “We were comrades, a den of thieves,” he said, “while simultaneously being polar opposites.” He and his brother “thrived in the woods” behind their home.
John spoke with admiration of all that David had accomplished and with regret about the distance between the brothers when they were older. He urged everyone to “make sure your loved ones know you love them.”
Matt Levy, who met David in Albuquerque, described David’s magnetism. When David visited Matt and his wife after their sons were born, “the boys were hooked” immediately. Matt marveled at the way David connected with his children and with so many members of his family.
Jeff Whitaker remembered meeting David in Colorado years ago. David drove his motorcycle straight through Jeff’s front yard, stopped at the front door where Jeff stood, and flipped up his helmet. “Hi,” he said, “I’m your new friend.” Jeff and David continued to be friends afterward and even lived near each other in Portland.
Jennifer Karps, canopy coordinator for the city of Portland, spoke on behalf of the three metro-area municipalities where David worked after he moved to Oregon. Lake Oswego co-workers, she said, remembered that “David built bridges” and was appreciated by people in boots and in suits. David’s Gresham colleagues remembered his “collaboration and vision.” The city flew its Tree City USA flag at half-mast on Monday in honor David, who helped the city achieve its Tree City USA status from the Arbor Day Foundation.
About her own work with David, Jennifer said, “He was never afraid to say exactly what he thought.” With his passing, the trees lost a tremendous advocate. “It calls for the rest of us to speak up in his absence.”
Friends of Trees board member Nancy Buley, who manages communications for J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., said that if she had to choose one word to describe David, it would be “earnest,” whose roots are in the Latin word for pledge, to promise.
David “took his work, and his tree stewardship very seriously. … He cared,” she said. He also had magnetism. He was spontaneous and fun. Nancy remembered dancing with David on the Burnside Bridge during the Rose Festival last summer.
Nancy said she’d heard that David scolded his co-workers for anthropomorphizing trees, but she hoped he would bear with her as she engaged in some “reverse anthropomorphism,” which she dubbed dendropomorphism.
Like David, she explained, the Afterburner Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica ‘David Odom’) that J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. named after David, which would be planted at Woodlawn Park later that afternoon,“is unique.”
“It’s upright, strong, straightforward, bold. It gets noticed.” It’s “colorful and a little bit flashy” and “catches your attention, just like David’s pearl snap buttons, his cowboy boots and that mischievous sparkle in his eye.”
Best of all, Nancy added, the tree thrives in many climates, and would be planted not only in Portland, but in Gresham, Albuquerque, Brooklyn, New York, and David’s hometown of Manchester, Connecticut.
Friends of Trees staff member Jesse Batty spoke after Nancy. He noted messages from two of David’s friends and colleagues, each saying she forgave him for hitting her in the head. Being friends with David, Jesse said, was like being “hit in the head.” A person “only had to meet him once. He had a light … a spirit that drew you in. … We all felt special in his presence.”
David was an amazing teacher, Jesse added. He taught him about trees and even grammar. Every time Jesse encouraged David to do something with him “really quick,” David stared at him levelly and said, “quickly.”
“He was much like a big brother to many of us,” Jesse said. He was also like a younger brother, “40 going on 14 … always up to something.”
David’s girlfriend, Christy Hudson, spoke about David’s generosity, which continuously inspired her. The Friday before he passed away, she said she learned for the first time the depth of David’s pain from losses and disappointments during his life.
She remembered how David often advised her that it wasn’t important to assess blame. Taking that to heart, she said that her and others’ task was “to forgive ourselves, and most importantly, for us to forgive him.”
Near the close of the service, David’s longtime friend, Lewi Longmire, sang a song that he wrote and composed. The first verse is:
I do believe
I’ll plant a tree
Something to survive me
A way to live on
After I’m gone
Following the service, about 75 people and a dozen dogs, including Pepe and Frida, gathered at Woodlawn Park in David’s neighborhood to plant an Afterburner Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica ‘David Odom’).
A bird perched quietly at the top of a nearby fir while taps were played and the sun went down. One by one, each person circling David’s tree added mulch near its trunk, which was already growing upright, strong, straightforward, and bold.