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Activist's oak tree campaign made South Tampa suburb beautiful

Mary Wharton Schroeder stands under the canopy of trees her mother envisioned as she constantly lobbied Tampa officials. “Mother badgered them, and everybody went along with it. The mayor was so sick of hearing about it.’’
Published Jan. 5, 2012

NEW SUBURB BEAUTIFUL

This enclave of old homes in South Tampa once wasn't quite as beautiful as it is today. Lillian Wharton transformed it. Nearly 40 years ago, the activist in high heels walked the neighborhood knocking on doors.

"You want a tree?'' she asked.

Today, branches of lush oaks arch over the streets, a constant reminder — to those in the know — of the neighborhood canopy crusader who died in 2008 at age 89. Residents still praise Wharton's legacy.

"It makes the neighborhood,'' says Will Cassidy, 40, out walking his dogs with 8-year-old daughter, Macy, on Prospect Road on a recent Sunday.

"That's what everybody says. You go down the street, it's the trees.''

Cassidy knows the history because he lived across the street from Lillian Wharton and her husband, Paul, a popular educator for whom Wharton High School was named. The couple lived on Prospect Road for their entire 65 years of marriage. Paul, 94, died three months after Lillian.

"We love the trees,'' says Brian Smith, 42, who moved into the neighborhood five years ago. Because the canopy is so thick, Smith finds it surprising that the first trees were planted just 37 years ago.

For Wharton, it was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. She had rallied the neighborhood as an effective political force, pressuring Tampa city officials to plant oak trees in the easements.

"Mother badgered them, and everybody went along with it,'' says her daughter, Mary Wharton Schroeder. She thinks Lloyd Copeland, the acting mayor at the time, gave in out of weariness. "The mayor was so sick of hearing about it.''

Lillian Wharton took on the Heritage Live Oak Project for her club, the Amaryllis Garden Circle. On Sept. 18, 1974, city workers planted the first five of 200 heritage oaks brought in from Texas. Copeland and city park officials were on hand for the event.

Bettie Nelson, 85, a fellow beautification firebrand, vaguely recalls that residents had to pay a fee, maybe $35 each, for the city to plant a tree in front of their homes.

Ali Glisson, Tampa public affairs director, says she can't find records of what fee, if any, New Suburb Beautiful residents were charged. Under a current community tree-planting program, Tampa residents and neighborhood associations can request free trees for city-owned land in front of their homes.

Nelson didn't take one of the heritage oaks in 1974. Her two towering Washingtonia palms remained healthy, though others in the neighborhood were dying — ''cockroach condominiums,'' as Schroeder called them.

"I'm a history buff,'' Nelson says, "so I didn't want to change any of the historical heritage of my house.'' When her palms finally died, she put in oak trees, though she had to buy them from a nursery.

"Lillian was always so enthusiastic, and she had far-reaching thoughts and ideas of the completed picture. She could see the whole picture,'' says Nelson.

"And it was something fun to do,'' she adds. "She and I thought the same, and we had so much fun. I still miss her, that rascal.''

Schroeder and Nelson laugh at the memory of Wharton canvassing the neighborhood in heels. The longtime legal secretary was always impeccably dressed. Nelson recalls a time she and Wharton were hard at work weeding the garden at an entrance to the neighborhood from Howard Avenue, under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

"I looked down, and it was a hot day, and Lillian had stockings on!''

Paul Wharton, an assistant school superintendent and former principal of Plant High School, had always received the accolades. So he was happy for his wife and proud of her accomplishments, says Schroeder, 57, a private tutor of the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. A lifelong resident of New Suburb Beautiful, Schroeder lives on Sunset Drive with her husband, well-known land-use consultant Steve Michelini.

The success of the oak tree project moved the president of the garden club, the late Mildred Geer, to honor Wharton with a poem. It read in part:

"… When told all the palm trees would have to be counted,/ On her trusty little feet she forthwith mounted.

"Without a second thought of aches or pains or blisters,/ She swept through our streets like a full-blown twister …''

Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or pmorgan@tampabay.com.

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