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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tree may be living link to Helen Keller

This linden tree in Manito Park is believed to have been planted by Helen Keller. (Stefanie Pettit)
This linden tree in Manito Park is believed to have been planted by Helen Keller. (Stefanie Pettit)

This is the tree that Helen Keller planted in Manito Park. Probably.

Ever since I began writing this Landmarks feature in 2007, I’ve occasionally written about things from the natural world. A few times I’ve written about old trees – some at Finch Arboretum and one ancient ponderosa pine in the Deep Creek area. When I wrote about those trees I began hearing talk about a tree that was planted at Manito by Helen Keller, the blind and deaf woman from Alabama who became an author, political activist and lecturer.

When I began to look into it, I kept hitting dead ends. I’ve talked with local experts including past and present supervisors at Manito, the Spokane Parks Department’s urban forester, WSU Extension people and Master Gardeners. I’ve done archival and online research. Couldn’t find anything.

But recently I was having a conversation on another topic with local historians Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, who have written a book on Manito Park and are working on an updated version, and I asked them. And there I found some success.

They don’t have direct documentation, but they have enough anecdotal evidence that I believe is worth putting in print. So with the understanding that this is what we believe took place, here’s the story.

It starts with Keller, who was born in Alabama in 1880 and, as is well known, developed an illness when she was about 18 months old that left her blind and deaf. The story of how devoted teacher Anne Sullivan worked to educate her was portrayed on stage and in film in “The Miracle Worker.” She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and spent a lifetime working for women’s suffrage and labor rights and was a celebrated author and lecturer. She also happened to love trees.

In her book “The Story of My Life” she spoke fondly about them, especially an old oak she played by as a child. And she mentioned one other: “I had another tree friend, gentle and more approachable than the great oak – a linden that grew in the dooryard at Red Farm (where she was a guest of the owners). One afternoon, during a terrible thunderstorm, I felt a tremendous crash against the side of the house and knew, even before they told me, that the linden had fallen. We went out to see the hero that had withstood so many tempests, and it wrung my heart to see him prostrate who had mightily striven and was now mightily fallen.”

In 1916 in Spokane, James Patrick McGoldrick II was born, the oldest grandson of Spokane pioneer lumberman J.P. McGoldrick. He would go on to become an avid pilot; founder of Northwest Electronics Inc.; director of the Expo ’74 Corporation and prominent in various aspects of Spokane’s business and cultural life. And one of the things he did was write “The Spokane Aviation Story, 1910-1941,” published by Tony and Suzanne Bamonte’s Tornado Creek Publications. It was during the process of putting the book together that he and the Bamontes became friends.

“Just in conversation one day, he told us about attending a tree planting by Helen Keller when he was a boy,” Tony said. The story is short. When McGoldrick was a student at Hutton School – in third or sixth grade he thought – he remembered his whole class traveling to Manito Park to watch Helen Keller plant the tree. There’s not much more to the tale than that.

Old newspaper stories show that Helen Keller visited Spokane several times, including once in 1925 when she spoke to a Lions convention. Although there was nothing mentioned in the story about a tree planting, at the time McGoldrick would have been 9 years old and likely in the third grade.

When McGoldrick, who died at age 95 in 2012, told his brief story to the Bamontes, he went with them to Manito Park to show them the tree. It’s a linden tree. It stands about 100 yards west of Grand Boulevard just north of the old entryway to the park, between 18th and 21st avenues. It has some noticeable bumps on its trunk, which Tony said is one of the ways McGoldrick was able to identify it.

“I wish now we had asked more questions and sought more details,” Suzanne said.

One arborist who has looked at the tree notes that it’s smaller than a 90-year-old linden should be, which he said might have to do with its location and the fact that it is leaning to the south, reaching for sunlight. Even so, the Bamontes are quite sure this is the tree McGoldrick pointed out to them as being the Helen Keller tree. “Jim’s word was solid gold, and if he said it’s the tree, it’s the tree,” Tony said.

Keller once observed: “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.”

So with a certain degree of hope and confidence it can be said that this is the very tree she planted here, that this linden tree is Helen Keller’s legacy of peace and hope for all of us.

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