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12/22/2016 8:30:00 AM
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from Oneonta family
THE EICHLERS IN New York City as their tree is delivered to Rockefeller Center. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer)
THE EICHLERS IN New York City as their tree is delivered to Rockefeller Center. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Tishman Speyer)

When Erik Pauze, the head gardener for New York City's Rockefeller Center, first knocked on the door of the Eichler home in Oneonta, Graig Eichler didn't answer. He thought the stranger was barking up the wrong tree.

Mr. Eichler and his wife, Angie, both work at SUNY-Oneonta. Mrs. Eichler, a parishioner of St. Mary's Church in Oneonta, said that after Mr. Pauze handed over his business card, she quickly Googled his name and found out his inquiry was real.

Mr. Pauze had gone out on a limb to approach the Eichlers about acquiring the massive Norway spruce in front of their home to become the 84th official Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. He'd spotted the nearly 95-foot tree from the road.

"He just wanted to take some pictures of our tree," Mrs. Eichler recalled. "He said he was looking at a few different trees."

That was at the end of April. It wasn't until the summer that the Eichlers found out that their 14-ton tree was indeed chosen for one of the country's most famous holiday displays.

At the root
Mr. Pauze came back to Oneonta about once a week during the summer months, fertilizing and watering the tree to keep it healthy. The Eichlers had to keep the destination of the special spruce a secret for a few months while the deal was still in the works. When Mrs. Eichler was finally able to tell her family, she said, her father was so excited that he read every article he could find on the Rockefeller tree.

"He spent hours," she said.

Going back to the root of the story is interesting: The Eichlers' home was built in 1933, the same year the "30 Rock" building at Rockefeller Center opened and the first year for an official Christmas tree lighting there.

The Norway spruce predates the Eichlers' home, though: It's estimated to be 90 to 95 years old.

The Eichlers have lived in the tree's shadow since they bought their home 12 years ago. Daughter Ava, now 14, said she remembers having sleepovers outside and always having to sweep needles off the trampoline in the backyard so she and her friends could play.

"My brother, [Brock,] and his friends would play stickball" under the tree, she added. "I was the pesky little sister." Mrs. Eichler said the family used the tree's roots as the pitcher's mound for those games.

Still, it was a bit of a "re-leaf" for the Eichlers to let go of the towering spruce. Concern that a storm might bring it down had worried the family and their elderly neighbors for years, but they'd been stumped by the cost of having such a gigantic tree removed.

All things considered, "losing the tree wasn't sentimental," Mrs. Eichler remarked. The family was happy to donate it for such an important use.

When it was time to move the future Christmas tree from Otsego County to the Big Apple on Nov. 10, the gardener and his crew tied up the branches with burlap, making sure that there was as little damage as possible during transit.

It was then unearthed using two cranes and loaded onto a flatbed truck. To do so, it had to be "floated" over the house.

After the Rockefeller Center crew cut down the tree, they removed the stump. In the spring, they will send landscapers to Oneonta to finish the job.

Faith as it fell
Before the tree was taken down, the Eichlers had a few friends and family members gather for a blessing of the tree by Rev. David Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary's.

"I took a passage from the creation story," Father Mickiewicz told The Evangelist. "It's an evergreen, so the idea is, Christ is always alive in the dead of winter."

The experience is making the Christmas season special, Mrs. Eichler said. Brock, now 19, came home from Arizona to watch the tree fall, as did other relatives.

Rockefeller Center invited the family to New York to see the Christmas tree twice: when it arrived and again for the official tree lighting, where comedian/actress Kate McKinnon of "Saturday Night Live," actor Alec Baldwin and New York mayor Bill de Blasio turned on the five miles of Christmas lights -- that's about 50,000 bulbs -- it took to cover the tree.

"We were right near the skating rink where everything took place," Mrs. Eichler told The Evangelist.

The Eichlers' tree will stick around Rockefeller Center until Jan. 7, adorned with a nine-foot Swarovski crystal star on top. It will then be milled into lumber to use for Habitat for Humanity homes.

Meanwhile, the Eichler family is looking forward to experiencing what their newly-sunny backyard will feel like next summer without the mammoth tree.

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