When a cherished weeping willow tree with a heart-shaped growth in their backyard was destroyed during a storm last month, Mike and Annie Gerard were devastated.

When the beech tree Mike had carved their initials in the day they got engaged 30 years ago was uprooted and fell over in a storm a few weeks later, the couple — who had just renewed their vows in May — was heartbroken, and Annie wondered if it was a sign.

“With the willow down and then that one down, I wondered if it was a sign of bad things or something going on because those were two icons [to our family],” said Annie, 61.

But thanks to some help from Summit Metro Parks, Mike and Annie now have the cherished section of the tree and plan to give it a special place in their Ellet home of 28 years.

"For me, it was a gift from God,” Annie said.

Mike, 54, was born and raised in Uniontown in Stark County, while Annie grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her preacher father eventually moving the family to Akron.

The two ran into each other by pure chance — and maybe a little nudge from fate.

Mike was 25, fresh out of four years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Annie was 31, a mother of three sons who had been divorced for a few years.

Annie had prayed for someone to come into her life, but she was close to giving up, telling a friend, “Unless God puts someone right in my path, I'm done dating.”

Three days later, the two "about ran into each other,” Annie said, coming around a corner at a Lakemore laundromat on Jan. 5, 1989.

Annie thought Mike was cute, a “man’s man” with sparkling blue eyes. Mike thought Annie was beautiful — and when they left the laundromat, they raced on Canton Road, Mike in his 1970 Pontiac GTO and Annie in a Camaro she was borrowing from a friend.

"I was like, 'Yeah, I like this girl,' ” Mike said.

As they started dating, they noticed similarities — both stubborn, both passionate, both lovers of country music and nature.

After a whirlwind two-month romance, Mike popped the question on March 7 at Annie’s apartment, a stone’s throw from Goodyear Heights Metro Park, which they visited frequently.

They went to the park, and Mike carved their initials and the date in a beech tree in the park — MG + AJ, for Annie Jones, with a heart and arrow around it all.

"We didn't know it would have been an act of vandalism back in 1989,” Annie said. “From our generation, the older generation, if you loved somebody, you put your name on a tree.”

A few months later, on June 10, the couple wed in a small outdoor ceremony near the tree in the park.

Over the years, the tree became a symbol of the couple’s love and a special location for the family, with the couple and their blended family of four sons and five grandchildren visiting the site.

“We really thought that tree would outlive us,” Annie said.

It was on one of those visits this month that their son, Jerek, and his wife, Jamie, saw the beloved tree had toppled over in a storm. Jerek retrieved a small piece from the tree so his parents would have some memento, even if it wasn’t their section.

Annie used a wood-burning pen on the piece to recreate the initials Mike had carved 30 years ago.

"I thought that's all we were going to have,” said Annie, who loves gardening and has planted about 60 plants and trees she views as “like our kids” around the yard.

A few days later, Jerek insisted to his mom that she needed to try to salvage their section of the tree. Jerek called Summit Metro Parks, and Annie eventually called, too.

As soon as Summit Metro Parks Regional Manager Dave Kamps heard about the couple’s request, he rushed out to the park to try to salvage their section.

And not a moment too soon — a crew was already working on cutting up the tree for free firewood.

The beech tree — estimated at around 75 to 80 feet tall and 125 years old — had been uprooted in a storm a few weeks earlier. But the area had been too wet for crews to remove it until then.

Normally, the park district leaves trees where they fall to let Mother Nature take its course — and the couple wouldn’t have been allowed to retrieve the section that included their carving. But because the tree fell in the park’s Pioneer Shelter area, it needed to be removed.

Kamps, who’s been with the park district for 26 years, said although there were “hundreds” of carvings on the tree’s trunk, the large heart and arrow around their initials made it easy to find. He thanked the crew for helping him cut out the wedge that included the couple’s carving.

"Since we were cutting it up for firewood anyway, it was important for me to kind of salvage that engraving if it was possible,” Kamps said. "Luckily, I was able to catch them in time.”

Kamps called the couple and met up with them later that day at the park’s field office to give them the carving.

After a gentle scolding for vandalizing the tree — “obviously it was a long time ago, but we can't condone any vandalism or destruction of park property,” he said — Kamps handed them the piece.

Annie said it was “surreal” and "like it was a dream.”

Mike and Annie, who attend The Chapel in Akron, profusely thanked Kamps, the tree crew and their son Jerek for helping them through the process.

“Thirty years ago when [I] carved this, we didn't know we would end up owning it,” said Mike, who managed a Cuyahoga Falls car wash for 27 years and has worked as an extrusion operator for three years at LyondellBasell Industries near the Akron-Canton Airport.

Kamps and the couple emphasized carving in trees is vandalism that isn’t permitted in the park district. Mike and Annie encouraged other couples to do what they do now — use markers or chalk, which will wash off, to draw or write on rocks.

Mike and Annie are still deciding where in their home they’ll put their piece, which is in the midst of a long preservation process.

Wherever it ends up, it will remain, as always, a symbol of the couple’s love.

“This will be ours for the rest of our life, however long that is,” Annie said. “When we're long gone...that's going to be a continuing icon, a symbol of love.”

 

Contact Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@thebeaconjournal.com and @EmilyMills818.