On October 24, 2020, when covid was ramping up for another major spike, both physical and economic, Gallant Gold Media hosted a free distribution of native redbud and button bush seedlings, at Parking Lot P at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia. The campaign was called Trees for Love and the seedlings were being planted to remember those we lost to covid in our communities. Fairfax ReLeaf supplied the free seedlings. The Fairfax Tree Commission was an essential liaison that helped get everything off the ground, which enabled the free seedling distribution to come to fruition by connecting the various organizations while in the middle of a pandemic.
It takes a village.
This memorable campaign ended up being the largest community tree planting success in the state of Virginia in 2020. The Burke Centre Conservancy was the largest group of planters, distributing 146 Fairfax ReLeaf free seedlings to their Clusters and residences. The rest of the redbud and button bush seedlings were claimed by Northern Virginia residents, many of whom were moved by friends and family who’d been lost to covid and were searching to find a meaningful way to honor their memory. We’re running this story again, after the little seedlings began waking up this spring in their new homes, and stretched their tiny limbs while reaching for the sun and are now another year older. More than 169 million Americans, 51 percent of population, are fully vaccinated.
As exciting as this may be, the pandemic will never be over for those connected to the 664,000 Americans who lost their lives to covid. Many family and friends are struggling with the heavy loss. Others are coping in whatever way they deem works best for them, for some, this is through nature, and planting trees to remember their loved ones.
One such Fairfax County resident is Dawn Zimmerman. Dawn, a Virginia State licensed professional counselor, operating her solo practice Imago Dei Counseling in Fairfax City, attributes her love of nature and gardening and the outdoors to her grandfather, a midwest farmer, as well as spending her childhood in Thailand. Although born in metro Washington DC, Dawn’s father was a State Department Foreign Service Officer. From a young age Dawn seems to have become well-acquainted with the understanding of how important it is to connect with others in our community and let them know we care, especially during a crisis.
Whether it’s Dawn’s close connection to the State Department, her career as a counselor, or her passion for nature, Dawn felt compelled to enrich Northern Virginia with multiple Virginia Native redbuds and button bushes to honor the five family and friends she’s lost to Covid. Dawn wanted us to know more than just their names though, she was eager to share their stories.
Ron Ontko: Dawn’s honorary uncle, passed away from Covid related complications on April 2, 2020 in Hendersonville, NC. He was 89 years old. Ron and his wife Carol, met in Wisconsin, and after college, while in a young couples group at Grace Lutheran Church in Washington, DC, became good friends with Dawn’s parents. The two couples went on to become lifelong friends. Ron was an avid photographer and devoted ‘Skins fan, but his career was spent in public service. After graduating high school, Ron served in the United States Air Force, before he returned to school. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Russian Studies from the University of Wisconsin and then his master’s degree in international law from George Washington University. From there, Ron worked for the NSA, the United States Senate, and the US State Department, which is quite a remarkable resume. Ron Ontko was a Freemason and a Shiner, participating in fundraising for numerous children’s charities. He is survived by his wife Carol of 62 years, as well as his son, Andrew, and daughter, Julie.
Jack “Zeke” Zimmerman: Zeke is Dawn’s uncle, who was lost to Covid related pneumonia on October 21, 2020 at aged 86 in Frederick, MD. Survived by wife Lynn, sons Steve (Andrea) and grandsons Eric and Mark of Memphis, TN; Paul of Wilmington, DE and was predeceased by son John, Silver Spring, MD. Also survived by Mary Lee Zimmerman, his first wife and the mother of their three sons; Daughter-in-Law Christie (widow of John) and grandchildren John Paul “JP” and Maria.
The following is a loving tribute written by Zeke’s grandson, Mark Zimmerman:
Zeke Zimmerman was known to many as the “Godfather of DC Metropolitan Area Sandlot Basketball.” GrandJack lived his life around basketball. He grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and fielded basketball teams. He formed teams from players that he would recruit from across the country. Around 1950, having teams with multiple races was unprecedented. My grandfather did not judge a player based on his skin color, but on his basketball ability. Jack was known as Zeke Zimmerman in the D.C. area. He formed a team called “Zeke’s All-Stars.” This was the first team that had both black and white players in the D.C. area. Because my grandfather did not judge a player based on his race, many black basketball players were able to go to college for basketball or even the NBA. A couple of years ago, he gave me a jersey from the 1950 Zeke’s All-Stars team. This jersey is a symbol of my family’s value of inclusion. It did not matter which race wore this specific jersey. The only thing that mattered was that my grandfather saw talent in that young man, and he wanted to help. My family still holds the values of inclusion and equality in our everyday lives, as we do not judge people based on their skin tone, but on their personality.
Below is a State Department obituary with a few extra details provided by Dawn:
Patrick “David” Husar, 67, died May 9, in Arlington, VA. David was born in Lorain, Ohio located on Lake Erie and 30 miles West of Cleveland. At University of Kentucky, where David majored in history, one of his professors encouraged him to consider a career with the Foreign Service. Joining in 1976, Husar served as a consular officer at posts in Pakistan, India, and the Philippines before transitioning to Civil Service. He retired in 2016 and enjoyed long walks around the Washington area, was an avid reader, and was dedicated to his faith. He is survived by his wife, Jonahlyn; a brother Michael; and extended family in the Philippines.
Daniel Lee: Spending a few minutes on Google images to view the architectural designs that Daniel Lee graced upon all of us here in the United States, is sure to inspire. And inspiration is certainly the impulse Mr. Lee appears to have been striving for when he graduated from the Mississippi School of Architecture in 1981 and began his career in classical architecture as an intern with Allen Greenberg. Mr. Greenberg is one of the premier classical architects of the twenty-first century. The son of Protestant missionaries, Mr. Lee’s love of classical architecture sprung from his childhood in Paris, France, surrounded by neoclassical landmarks erected during the reign of Louis XIV and that continued all the way through Louis XVI. Many of us here in Virginia are endowed with an inherent appreciation for classical architecture, which dates back to the founding of our most historic cities. So it’s with great sadness that we lost Mr. Lee to Covid on August 17, 2020, at age 64. Mr. Lee is survived by his wife of 40 years, Leonor Lee, his two sons, Stephen and Christopher, and two daughters, Susanne and Katherine.
There’s an additional friend of the family. In Dawn’s own words:
Pat Purcell died from Covid related complications on May 11th, 2020 in Fairfax, VA. Pat resided in the same Senior living community as my mom and was the elderly mother of Ann Lawrence, a friend of my parents from their local Lutheran Church. Mom and Pat became friends but lived on different floors and in different areas of the building. Interestingly, Pat was actually a member of a local Baptist Church but was adopted by the Lutheran pastor, Rev Sandy Kessinger who made regular visits to their Continuing Care Community.
Dawn spent 10 years working at the State Department before starting her counseling firm. After buying her townhouse, she became involved with her HOA replanting project, which she finds life affirming. During the first five years, Dawn planted five trees, as well as a slew of shrubs and perennials. Dawn was sidelined from her gardening last year following two minor car accidents which required physical therapy. But thankfully, she returned with all her passion and began removing hundreds of “small, weedy Rose of Sharon saplings and bush honeysuckle” that were rapidly spreading in the HOA areas. She’d learned about the importance of growing Virginia Natives and was determined to correct the situation.
Dawn’s Virginia native Trees for Love redbud and buttonbush seedlings are planted in three HOA areas in Dawn’s Northern Virginia townhouse community. Dawn received a note from one family member who expressed, “That’s perfect; thank you. Not just words but heartfelt, tears flowing, gratitude.”
When I asked Dawn for one final thought on the importance of planting trees, she responded with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“When we plant a tree, we are doing what we can to make our planet a more wholesome and happier dwelling-place for those who come after us if not for ourselves.”
Thanks so much, Dawn! You are a great inspiration to so many.
When Dawn and I had tea on Wednesday, she explained that she planted more seedlings this spring, to remember the additional friends who lost their lives to covid after her October seedling planting. She spoke about how therapeutic nature is, and the wonderful peaceful feeling we can all receive when we stick our hands in the soil and carefully place the bare roots in the awaiting space where the sapling will soon take root and begin its slow and steady climb toward the sky.
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