The Times of Trenton Archive
COPYRIGHT The Times of Trenton 1997

Date: 1997/04/26 Saturday Page: A1 Section: News Edition: Size: 1037 words

City mourns passing of quiet activist

Staff Writer


Joe Bird  

TRENTON _ Joe Bird was a man who did what needed doing without being asked, a man who worked as hard for free as for pay, a man who lived in the city but could name every tree in the forest.

Everyone who knew Joe Bird knew he did a lot of good but none of them knew how much he did until, without warning, he died and the mourners shared stories.

``I thought I knew all the groups he worked with but it was amazing to me to find out how many more there were,'' said Peggy McNutt of the Delaware and Raritan Greenway Program, which has taken the lead in preservation of Trenton/ Hamilton Marsh. ``He was one of those people who quietly took care of things before we even knew it was a problem.''

Bird, 44, worked for the city Shade Tree Bureau, planting, pruning and caring for generally unappreciated city trees. He was usually the only citizen attending public meetings of the county's open space and parks commissions, where he'd take copious notes that could be used to fact check the official minutes, and he was a volunteer for every outdoor-oriented worthwhile cause in Mercer County.

``Any time somebody was planting a tree or doing environmental education for kids, Joe would show up,'' said Liz Johnson, who knew Bird for many years through her work at Isles, at the city's Department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture and as chair of the county Open Space Preservation Board.

``He was the sole citizen who would show up at the Open Space Preservation Board, and he'd take notes,'' Johnson said. ``He was not outgoing, he was something of an introvert, yet he was comfortable standing up to speak about what was important to him. In some ways he was a kind of environmental conscience for people.''

YESTERDAY WAS the first Arbor Day that anyone in town could remember without Bird around to plant trees, and today is the only time in 14 years that potatoes will be planted at Howell Farm to feed the hungry without his help.

``Joe always showed up to help,'' said Pete Watson, administrator of Howell Living History Farm. ``He cared a lot about our park system and he was willing to get dirty to make things work. He always seemed to pick the hard days to volunteer, the days when you get sweaty and dirty and you aren't in the limelight.''

Bird was a private person, friends said, but he was not reluctant to act on behalf of his convictions. He once walked from New Jersey to Arizona to show solidarity with the struggles of Hopi and Navajo Indians. Another time, costumed as George Washington, he walked across a shallow part of the Delaware River to protest construction of the Point Pleasant pump.

Bird was as zealous learning about the environment as he was defending it.

``He was brilliant,'' said Phil Mosner, superintendent of the Shade Tree Bureau. ``Sometimes I thought he was in the wrong job. Let's say he was overqualified.''

When Bird took the job trimming city trees in 1989 he scarcely knew a pine from an oak, Mosner said. Over the years Bird purchased hundreds of books on botany, biology, ecology and other natural sciences. By the time of his death he was well known locally as a superb amateur botanist who could identify every tree native to this region.

Among Bird's hobbies was scouring the forest in search of ``record trees.'' The largest known persimmon tree in New Jersey grows in Trenton/Hamilton Marsh. It was Bird who found it.

``On a Saturday, instead of working here for the time-and-half, he'd rather be out hiking around Trenton Marsh looking for unusual trees,'' Mosner said.

ON MONDAY morning, Feb. 10, Bird went home from work after complaining of a headache that felt as though it would split his skull. The next day he didn't show up and he didn't call in sick. Anybody who knew Bird knew that wasn't like him.

``I'll tell you what Joe Bird was like,'' said Jean Shaddow, his boss at the Department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture. ``A few years ago I was getting dressed on a Saturday morning for a tree planting and the phone rang. This very groggy voice tells me `I can't be there today but don't worry, I arranged for somebody else to pick up the trees.' I realized it was Joe and when I asked him what was wrong he said he was in the hospital and had just had his appendix removed. Yet he'd arranged for somebody to sub for him and he called in sick.''

When Bird neither showed for work nor called in sick a second day, Mosner drove to his house to investigate.

Ultimately he called Bird's mother, who then called police, who entered the house through a window and found Bird unconscious. He was rushed to Helene Fuld Medical Center and diagnosed with streptoccus pneumoniae meningitis, a lethal and mysterious infection. Bird lingered for two weeks before he was removed from life support with his family's permission, said his sister, Kathleen Bird Maurice.

``He was over at my house every Friday night for the last eight years, but when he sat down to dinner he wouldn't mention that he'd spent all day in the Trenton Marsh clearing trails,'' said Maurice. ``He was over for dinner the night before he went home sick with a headache and never complained about a thing.''

Maurice learned much about her brother in the painful process of taking care of his possessions. There was the letter she found from the city thanking him for wearing the Batman costume in the Thanksgiving Day parade.

``I never knew he did that,'' she said.

Maurice met a woman who told the story of mentioning to Bird, on an April 12 a couple of years ago, that she had not prepared her income taxes yet and she didn't even know where to get the forms. The next morning she found a 1040 form placed neatly under the windshield wiper of her car.

``He was always doing things like that,'' Maurice said. ``People would just think out loud about what they had to get done and then he would do it without drawing attention to himself.''

NOTE: Family and friends of Joe Bird will gather at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, rain or shine, in Cadwalader Park to dedicate a new grove of oak and birch trees in his memory. For more information, call 609-393-7643.


 The Times of Trenton Archive
COPYRIGHT   The Times of Trenton 1997

Date: 1997/05/18 Sunday Page: Section: Editorial Edition: Size: 220 words


Joe Bird is missed

Thank you for printing the story about Joe Bird, ``City mourns passing of a quiet activist'' (April 26). I knew him for over 20 years but hadn't seen him in awhile. He was a great guy, but I never realized how great until his many worthwhile accomplishments were highlighted on the front page of your newspaper. I'm sorry that his life ended so suddenly. What a loss of a fine person.

I hope his books and notes find a home where they can continue to make a difference in Trenton. I am the president of the Learning Arcade in Montgomery Township and work in cooperation with the township recreation department to provide creative, cooperative and fun computer enhanced activities for children. There is an after-school program in Trenton for ``at risk'' children called New Visions which is about to begin a study of the Delaware-Raritan Canal. They will be researching and recording their data with the assistance of computers connected to the Internet and with help from college student volunteers. Perhaps they could help find a way to work with some of the data that was collected by Joe.

I saw Joe for the last time about a year ago. He was beaming with joy, as usual. Now I know why -- he was living his dream. His death is a sad reminder of how short and precious life is.

Susan L. Albert

Rocky Hill



The Times of Trenton Archive
COPYRIGHT   The Times of Trenton 1997

Date: 1997/07/02 Wednesday Page: Section: Editorial Edition: Size: 452 words

Joe Bird's spirit lives on

On behalf of the entire family of Joe Bird, I offer my heartfelt thanks to The Times and especially, reporter Peter Page, for the recent front-page article ``City mourns passing of quiet activist'' (April 26). Although Mr. Page never met Joe, his efforts truly captured my brother's remarkable life and how devastating to many his death was, and continues to be.

I can't tell you how many people have stopped me in the grocery store or elsewhere to remark at how impressed they were with Joe's story, but also how truly impressed they were that your newspaper published such an inspiring piece on its front page. For that I am grateful and you deserve to be commended.

I also want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to Joe's co-workers in the city of Trenton for their support; to the Trenton police officers and medical personnel who worked so hard; and especially, to Joe's many friends and members of the environmental community with whom he had worked so closely over many years.

Liz Johnson, chair of the Mercer County Open Space Preservation Board, captured the essence of Joe when she was quoted as describing my brother as ``a kind of environmental conscience for people.''

Without drawing personal attention or bringing monetary gain to himself, Joe worked tirelessly on behalf of every environmental and open-space issue in the Delaware Valley. But that's not all. He was passionate about children, about education, about feeding the hungry in body and soul, and about selflessly sharing. It is in giving that he received. Four months after his death, I am still stunned at the depth and breadth of his countless contributions to making the lives of individuals better.

There is no more fitting memorial to Joe that I can imagine than the new grove of trees planted in the city of Trenton's Cadwalader Park, between Ellarslie, the city museum, and the playground, or the new plantings in his memory at John A. Roebling Park in the Hamilton/Trenton Marsh.

I am in the process of collecting anecdotes, memories and photographs in order to spread Joe's message. It is a message of living by example. Joe Bird was a self-appointed public servant who worked without pay to improve the lives of everyone in Mercer County. At the same time, he held elected and appointed public servants to a high standard of accountability and integrity and constantly reminded them of their obligations to the people.

[edited to remove old contact information]

Kathleen Bird

Hopewell Borough