Refugee, pastor, Google Earth globetrotter, planter of trees. Born Dec. 11, 1929, in Tilsit, East Prussia, died Nov. 10, 2012, in St. Albert, Alta., of natural causes, aged 82.
Affectionately known as “Mr. Tree” for his love of all things arboreal, Ernst Klaszus became a tree hugger early in life.
He grew up in East Prussia, Nazi Germany’s easternmost province. During Allied air raids, his family would flee into a nearby forest and cling to trees as protection from flak shrapnel falling from the sky.
When Ernst was 14, his father Friedrich was killed in an air raid. Days later, Ernst left home with his mother and sisters, joining the stream of refugees fleeing westward from the advancing Soviet Red Army. Homeless and starving, Ernst and his family zigzagged around Germany in search of welcome.
Having lived as a refugee, Ernst had a special fondness for newcomers. In his final years, he would often ask people about their countries of origin and reveal that he had visited their homelands just last month – on Google Earth. “No jet lag that way,” he would say with a twinkling eye. He loved retracing the journeys of his youth online, and setting out on new ones.
In 1952, Ernst embarked on a seminary exchange from Germany to Wisconsin that was to have lasted a year. He stayed for good, falling in love with Barbara Peters, the daughter of his Old Testament professor. They were married for 57 years, until Ernst’s death, and had six children.
Life with Ernst involved many lessons. He enjoyed speaking at length and sharing knowledge. After serving for 15 years as a Lutheran pastor in St. Albert, Alta., he taught at an elementary school in Edmonton.
Again, his wartime experience revealed itself – in empathy. Many of his students came from low-income families and didn’t eat breakfast at home. Ernst knew learning would be difficult without food, so he had students make each other breakfast in the classroom, a solution both creative and compassionate.
Ernst was most in his element amid trees, whether showing children how to plant a seedling or make a five-minute match. In the 1980s he started volunteering with the Alberta Junior Forest Wardens. His dedication and seemingly limitless knowledge of trees made him a legend within the organization and beyond. He ultimately became chief warden, and glowed with pride whenever he wore his red uniform.
Ernst left a living legacy in the thousands upon thousands of seedlings he planted throughout Alberta. Late in life he revealed, with some reluctance, that he planted trees everywhere, even in places where he did not have permission to do so.
To his children and grandchildren he could be a severe authoritarian, thundering on endlessly about rules, but in tree planting he quietly went rogue as he saw fit.
His life truly embodied the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
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