The Tallest Tree in Chavez Plaza

Editorial Page: 9B

By Tom McEnery


Tom McEnery was mayor of San Jose from 1983 to 1990. ONE BRISK morning in 1989, a construction worker in San Jose’s downtown made an unusual find. Curt Elrod was working hard, busily completing the renovation of Plaza Park in front of the Fairmont Hotel. As he prepared to uproot a scrawny and nondescript tree at the north end of the park, a glint of metal caught his eye.

He could easily have destroyed the spindly tree in accordance with his instructions. Construction workers had a checkered history with such renovations. A few years before, another work crew nearby had crumpled up a “found” piece of expensive modern art and had it hauled off to the dump. But something stopped Elrod. When he examined the tree, he noticed a small, tarnished plaque at its base. The inscription could still be read: The Freedom Tree: with the vision of universal freedom for all mankind, this tree is dedicated to Lt. Col. Gordon L. Page and all prisoners of war and missing in action, 1973.

The construction worker stopped like a farmer discovering the relic of a long-dead civilization. He called his supervisor. The supervisor called my office.

When Page was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, I was attending college at Santa Clara University and did not notice the beginning of the colonel’s saga. When the tree was first dedicated toward the end of the war in 1974, I was recently married and a new father, and again took no notice. When the call came in 1989 to the mayor’s office, I was again busy, but this time I noticed.

I went immediately to see this forgotten souvenir of another time and place, and thanked the construction worker. The Freedom Tree could have become just another part of San Jose’s past relegated to the ash bin of history. I was going to make sure that this story of courage and commitment would be remembered in our city.

Luck was with us. Col. Page’s widow still lived in Thearea. I soon spoke with her and learned that she had chosen our city as a permanent home and a place to raise her family. The kids had attended school here, and her son, as a student at San Jose State, had often brought friends to the park to see the tree that honored his dad.

With the help of the family and the assistance of many others, we planned a proper commemoration. It has been said that a culture is what it values and what it remembers. That definition describes what occurred on Nov. 11, 1989, at the Veterans Day Parade in Plaza Park. Amid the towering Fairmont and its neighboring office buildings, the spires of St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the redwoods of the park, a six-foot tree was rededicated, healthy and proud. The crowd of people included military brass, a choir, and the wife, children, father and grandchild of Col. Gordon Page, United States Air Force, a citizen of our city. The group also included a mayor with a good (if refreshed) memory. Thousands of others in the park had never heard of Gordon Page before that day, but demonstrated a loving respect for the warrior who had never come home to a parade or a band.

Balloons floated skyward as the singers of the Castillero Middle School choir sang the most lovely of songs from “Les Miserables,” “Bring Him Home”:

He is young. He is only a boy. Bring him peace. Bring him joy. . . . Bring him home.

The emotion at the ceremony was as palpable as any I ever felt as mayor. Those assembled understood that the Freedom Tree said much about the colonel, but more about those left behind. Our duty was to reflect and remember.

This spot will always remain hallowed ground. When you go to the park, now Cesar Chavez Plaza, visit the tree. You can’t miss it; it is still at the north end. In a way, it is the tallest tree in the park.

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