Rooted in tribute, felled by bad luck

The Baltimore Sun

In Baltimore's Monument Square, home to America's first public war memorial and the city's dual courthouses, stood a stump of a tribute.

To commemorate the court's clerks, three attempts have been made to plant a ceremonial tree. But in their undignified lives, the cherry trees on Calvert Street near Lexington have been backed over, denied water and split like a wishbone, their leafless trunks left for dead.

"The Clerks' Tree" had become perhaps the saddest tree in downtown Baltimore. Actually, the city removed the stump last week in anticipation of a fourth attempt later this fall to erect a tree.

"It's been totally abused," said Baltimore attorney Lois A. Fenner-McBride. "I walk by it and see it every day. It's just a shame."

The memorial's beginning was heartfelt and noble enough. In 2000, Fenner-McBride and a who's who of the city's legal and political community celebrated the centennial of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Guests paid $100 a ticket to fox-trot in courtrooms. As part of the festivities, luminaries brandished shovels to plant what became officially known as the Clerks' Tree.

"Planted in gratitude for the dedicated service of the court clerks of the circuit court for Baltimore City," reads the plaque that has survived a tree only Charlie Brown could love.

"At least his tree had needles on it," said Assistant City Solicitor Robert D. Anbinder. He, too, is among the tide of people who walk past the once-healthy cherry tree. "I can tell you what kind of tree it is now. It's a dead one."

John Carroll Byrnes, a retired Baltimore circuit judge, was chairman of the centennial committee. A tree - a symbol of strength, dignity and antiquity - seemed a fitting way to honor 100 years of clerks who "labored in our judicial vineyard," as Byrnes says.

"Plaques and trophies get lost in the shuffle of life," he said. "Trees hopefully are lasting."

Even at the groundbreaking ceremony for this tree, some sensed the location was flawed. Who was going to water the tree? It also appeared to be too close to Calvert Street and could be exposed to errant motorists.

"We didn't know it was going to take all those blows," said Frank M. Conaway Sr., Baltimore's Circuit Court clerk, whose ceremonial shovel still hangs in his courthouse office.

Before it was removed last week, the stump was the third tree planted at the spot near the courthouse. The first tree was believed to have been felled by dry weather. The second expired when a car apparently slammed into it, Anbinder says. Then, Baltimore defense attorney Margaret Mead, who passes the tree in her daily rounds, took the initiative and had a new tree planted at the site, Byrnes says.

That tree reportedly suffered injustices of a more personal nature. Some homeless people in the vicinity of the Battle Monument have used the tree at night as a public restroom.

"But that wouldn't kill the tree," Byrnes said. "I walk my dog by there every day."

One story that went around the courthouse was that a defendant, perhaps unhappy with the scales of justice, left the courthouse and took out his displeasure on the tree, leaving it in the shape it was in until it was removed. Maybe this was how the current tree died. Or maybe it just gave up. The tree's closest neighbors, the sidewalk hot dog vendors, shake their heads on the subject. Their carts face the Clerks' Tree every day. In the past, they have emptied their drink coolers to water the tree at the end of the day. Most pitiful thing they have ever seen.

"It's giving a bad name to the city employees there in the courthouse," said vendor Beatrice Gonzalez. "Someone should do something about this."

The tree falls under the auspices of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. Department representative Kea McLeod says the Clerks' Tree is on the fall planting schedule.

The parks department has been holding off on planting trees because of the recent drought, but the Clerks' Tree should be replaced by another cherry tree in the coming weeks, McLeod says.

This is groundbreaking news to a loyal band of supporters who just wanted a tree to honor the clerks.

"We all like to see as much life as we can here in downtown Baltimore," Anbinder said.

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