In June 1990, Gene Hyde left his job in West Tennessee to become the city of Chattanooga’s first municipal/city forester.
And like a healthy hardwood tree over several decades, he tried to occupy his spot in a noticeably positive way over the next 30 years.
“When I came to Chattanooga, I came with the goal of being an impact player by trying to establish a good solid program,” he said.
“And I enjoyed working with various people, from colleagues to the general public.
“If you’re going to be successful in urban forestry, you’ve got to be a bridge builder.”
Although he became one of the more familiar names among non-elected city of Chattanooga employees over the years due to the nature of his unique job and periodic media interviews, Mr. Hyde actually retired quietly on Jan. 31 before the pandemic hit locally.
Admittedly not one to try and draw a lot of attention to himself, the low-key exit was by his design, he said.
But during a recent phone interview after watching a morning Tour de France race on TV, this former triathlete, who once rode with inaugural American Tour de France rider Jacques Boyer, took some time to look back on his career.
In contrast to many people, his vocation at the time of his retirement was actually an avocation as a child.
Spending his younger years in Memphis and primarily Louisiana, he became fascinated with trees at a young age.
“My grandparents had a home in Memphis, and I remember going around the yard and looking at trees and trying to figure out what kind they were,” he said.
Rocks were another interest, as the gravel near his home in East Carroll Parish in Northeast Louisiana had been taken from the nearby Mississippi River, and he enjoyed finding horse teeth fossils and other interesting items.
So, when he went to LSU for college, he knew he wanted to study something related to his passions.
“I’ve always been an outdoors person,” said Mr. Hyde, whose naturally slender frame contrasts sharply with some of the ancient thick oaks and other hardwoods he has worked with over the years. “So, forestry was a natural fit for me. But it was a tossup between forestry and geology, and forestry won out.”
He initially held forest service summertime jobs, and over the years worked in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona and West Tennessee. When he was hired for the newly created Chattanooga job, he was serving as superintendent of grounds and landscaping for the city of Jackson, Tn.
His work here over the years included working with utility and public works officials, the local tree commission, and members of the general public. Often if a city resident called about some kind of tree issue at their home, he would schedule a time to check it out.
And he would usually offer the same perspective in his advice, telling people what he would do about their tree if this was his home or property.
Mr. Hyde is an obvious lover of trees, and he referred to them during the interview as a noble resource. But he is not a complete tree hugger, occasionally recommending that a diseased tree that is too far gone or too close to a home or building needed to be cut down.
“You have to use country boy common sense,” he said.
His other work included reviewing and working with tree ordinance permits that involve protecting or planting trees, as well as planting other trees in parks, downtown streets and city gateways. He also oversaw the routine maintenance of existing trees and was involved with local Arbor Day observances.
During his time in Chattanooga, Mr. Hyde has seen the Bradford pear trees that once dotted the downtown streets fall out of favor due to branch splitting problems and their invasive nature. And he has also observed the local efforts of the UTC-affiliated Chattanooga Chestnut Tree Project to introduce a hybridized American chestnut that is more disease resistant. He had coordinated with the efforts to plant some of the trees at the Greenway Farm in Hixson.
Other diseases and blights have popped up over his time in Chattanooga.
Regarding what his favorite tree is, Mr. Hyde said diplomatically that it depends on the place and situation.
“I like the right tree for the right place,” he said with a chuckle, adding that can depend on whether one is looking for fall colors on the leaves or whether they want a tree near or away from a home. “You want to choose the right tree for the right place, so it can thrive.”
Mr. Hyde has never lost his fascination for trees, and admittedly over the years has continued to try and enjoy trees as well as just work with them.
“I enjoy hiking, and when I have been in other parts of the country and foreign places, I try to figure out what kinds of trees are there,” he said.
He jokingly added that he visited South Florida once and realized how different their arboreal ecosystem is from elsewhere. “I might as well have been on Mars,” he said. “I didn’t recognize a single tree.”
Mr. Hyde, who has been replaced by Pete Stewart, has been busy walking a lot and doing other fitness-related exercises to keep active in his retirement. But other than that, he is still trying to plan what all else he wants to do in the future.
“I am still trying to figure out the direction,” said Mr. Hyde, who with his wife of 49 years, Nancy, has two daughters, Allison and Alicia, and one young grandson, Wyatt Spencer. “I want to grow old gracefully.”
If he wants some good role models for that among the world’s living creatures, he can likely just look at all the eye-pleasing and healthy mature hardwood trees he has worked with over the years.