by Lou Mancinelli
West Mt. Airy resident Dave Tukey, a Ph.D. in experimental psychology who now works as a freelance arborist for Morris Arboretum and Penn State Extension, is currently serving his second year of a three-year term as a board member of Weavers Way Coop. Since 2005, through West Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN) he has helped plant more than 500 trees in West Mt. Airy and done pro bono tree pruning and climbing in several neighborhoods.
Before he became an arborist and learned to climb trees at age 55, Tukey worked in administration at various universities. He was an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and director of the division of academic programs and services at West Chester University (WCU).
After working as a professor and administrator in higher education for 25 years, around the turn of the century, Tukey switched his focus. He wanted “to get out of the rat race of administrative work,” he said.
So he left his job at WCU and took a job in Paoli creating a uniform hymn book of music for the priests at Daylesford Abbey that would be used by its community around the country. But he was let go when they axed the position.
Towards the end of his run at the Abbey, he married Louise Hayes in 2004 and moved to West Mt. Airy. He took a job as manager of human resources at Weavers Way. A few years later, looking for new things to do, he started to take a few arborist workshops.
“I got hooked,” he said, about his newfound hobby.
That hobby later transformed into a new career. In 2008 he left Weavers Way to pursue being an arborist. He’d been taking various workshops, tree planting and tree climbing and even ones about tree biology. The question was: “What’s next?”
“I wasn’t sure at my age and level of experience what to do,” he said. “I was a little too old to be a tree climber.”
Tree climbers are a major element of the arborist business. They use a harness and a rope and some well-tied knots to maneuver up, down and around the trunk of a tree like a human squirrel (though without the ability to sprint across branches) to do trimming, pruning or science.
Raised in State College, Tukey had earned three different bachelors degrees in math, economics and psychology, from Penn State University in five years. He graduated in 1977 and then went to the University of Minnesota, where he earned his Ph. D. in 1983.
After grad school, Tukey pursued research, following the path of his thesis, which explored how people make decisions, how they use information to make their decisions and all forms of the decision-making process. He sought to make his thesis into a journal article, which was eventually published in Europe.
From 1988 until 2000, Tukey worked in administration at various universities. The moving around often had it benefits, but there were challenges like the ones an athlete might face when traded to a new team.
“When you move around, you have to relearn things,” he said.
In the name of new learning, after leaving his job at Weavers Way, he applied and was accepted as the Martha S. Miller Endowed Urban Forestry Intern at Morris Arboretum, a one-year program. Now, Tukey, 60, works as a freelance arborist, serving as instructor at large tree climbing events, like an upcoming public climb in New Jersey this June, and he gives talks and workshops.
Tukey has also immersed himself in the local community. He was instrumental in manufacturing the merger between the Weavers Way Tree Tenders and WMAN’s Streetscapes programs, which both planted trees. “It’s about ecology,” Tukey said, referring to planting more trees in the area. Trees provide numerous benefits in urban settings. They are natural born coolers, filtrate the air and provide community cohesion, according to Conservation Magazine.
Weavers Way and Streetscapes have planted 500 trees in the past nine years.
Right now, they’re also helping another group with efforts to restore the pergolas at Lincoln Drive and Johnson Street (Germantown Historical Society had contacted West Mt. Airy Neighbors about restoring them), and they’re discussing what to do with the grass triangle at Lincoln and Emlen Street.
In addition to his work as an arborist, Tukey and his wife have planted more than 40 species of native trees at their home. “Our backyard is like my little laboratory,” he said. “The biggest lesson is never trust deer.”
But there’s another lesson Tukey’s been learning: resilience and vitality. It’s something he himself has exhibited throughout his life. “Trees will always surprise you with how fast they recover from injury … I think it says a lot about life. It’s just a life force, how nature is compelled to do what is knows how to do. It will surprise you with how much life and vitality it has.”
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