Washington remembers Byrne, Villarosa

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Washington Elementary School celebrated Arbor Day on April 27 by planting two trees on the school playground — one dedicated to Gov. Brendan Byrne, a West Orange native who attended the school as a child and who died earlier this year, and one dedicated to Patricia Villarosa, a first-grade teacher who died from injuries she sustained after being struck by a car in March. The trees were planted by the West Orange Public Works Department before staff and students honored Byrne and Villarosa in the school gym.

After the student band and orchestra performed before the whole school, Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky took the stage and spoke about Byrne and Villarosa.

Rutzky described a visit that Byrne made to Washington several years ago, saying, “his passion for Washington and West Orange was amazing. The way he talked about this school was so fantastic to listen to. I was impressed by the questions that students asked and how sincere his answers were. He really cared, and it’s a remarkable way to remember him and Washington and in the community.”

Principal Marie DeMaio described Villarosa as a person committed to her students and everyone at the school.

“Her commitment to helping others was evident in everything she did,” she said at the event.

While Rutzky said that he didn’t know Villarosa as well as the staff and students at Washington did, he told students that the tree planted in her honor would be a good way for them to remember her.

“The thing that is wonderful about this is that you’ll be able to look at that tree and watch it grow and remember her,” Rutzky said, with several members of Villarosa’s family in attendance. “Everyone can come back and see how big that tree is.

“Don’t forget to pop back into this parking lot in a few years and take a look at those trees,” he continued.

West Orange town forester John Linson presented the Washington students with a flag emblazoned with a tree logo and the words “Tree City, U.S.A” before discussing the origins of Arbor Day. A separate holiday from Earth Day, Arbor Day began in Nebraska, when pioneers from Detroit sprinkled the treeless plains with saplings and shrubs. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, a Nebraska newspaper editor, proposed a tree-planting holiday and Arbor Day was born.

“Trees give us so much: heat, fruit, nuts, oxygen,” Linson said at the event. “And we need more trees to replace the ones we lost with the bad weather this year. West Orange has a tradition of taking care of its trees, and we’re going to continue doing that.”

Mayor Robert Parisi also briefly spoke at the Arbor Day celebration. Parisi, also a graduate of Washington, told students to think about the trees every time they return to the school, when they are no longer students.

“What’s important about what we’re doing today is seeing those trees and recognizing that you were a part of it,” Parisi told students at the event. “And come back and see them just like I’m coming back here today.”

West Orange Township Council President Susan McCartney, who is the council’s liaison to the West Orange Environmental Commission, said the ceremony and planting of the trees at Washington was beautiful in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event. Mike Brick, the chairman of the Environmental Commission, agreed.

“We’re hoping that they become students of the environment,” Brick said, mentioning that young people can make the biggest difference in cleaning up the environment. “They’re the generation that has to do it, so we’re hoping to drive that home for them.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic