I've called Thane Rogers over the years with a variety of questions — and so have my fellow Wichitans. The one question that sticks in my mind involved a walk in Riverside Park in mid-March 2006, a haunting procession of purply-pink blossoms accompanying my path. I'll never forget Thane telling me the name of the trees, as awesome as their flowers against their dark wood: Thundercloud plum.
It was Thane's idea to plant the Thunderclouds alongside the pool of steel water lilies, past the playground and up to Celebration Plaza.
"Just thought it would look nice to line the walk with color," he e-mailed me at the time in his usual understated way.
Thane has worked in the city of Wichita's parks department for 37 years, mainly in plant installation and maintenance, mainly trees, and mainly downtown. Just shy of the Thunderclouds' blooming, he's retiring next Friday as the city's landscape supervisor, having planted or supervised the planting of 62,000 trees.
"He's been very visionary," extension agent Bob Neier says. "I think it's made a huge impact when you look at... trees that he's either planted or supervised planting."
Thane has witnessed a lot of changes in Wichita's landscape over 37 years, but none as big as what's coming up as he retires: The city outsourcing some of the work, including the mowing of city parks, to cut expenses.
But let's go back, to simpler times, when Thane was 23, had completed a two-degree program in horticulture in Hutchinson and was the one doing the mowing.
"Actually, when I started out, I was pushing a 21-inch lawnmower in A. Price Woodard Park. Just a regular home push mower," Thane says.
It was 1973, and urban renewal was seeing buildings come down and parks such as Naftzger and Heritage go in.
"That was always fun for me, being involved in the starting from scratch, getting the plants in, the trees planted, and then I started the maintenance on them," Thane says.
As he got more responsibility, Thane was put in charge of the annual flowers for the parks department, mainly planted in the Riverside parks and downtown around Century II. There was a time when he started the flowers from seed himself at a greenhouse at 17th and South Hydraulic in Linwood Park.
"The other aspect I got into was the tree planting," Thane says. "At Pawnee Prairie Park we used to grow our own trees. We had 10,000 at one time in the ground."
When the late Chris Cherches became city manager in the mid-1980s, he said he was struck by how barren the city's intersections and medians were. He led a reforestation effort that saw thousands of trees planted to take the place of those that had been lost over the years to such things as Dutch elm disease, Thane says.
By far, Thane's deepest joy has come from the trees.
"Flower planting, that's all pretty short-term stuff. It has to be repeated all the time. The flowers go away. The trees are what I consider the lasting legacy of the parks department. They are what's going to be there for decades to come."
Thane went back through old records and figures that he's planted or supervised the planting of 62,000 trees.
"I'm pretty proud of that. That can make a big difference to a city this size."
Neier says that Thane was always on the search for new varieties, trying a few out for periods of time before determining whether to invest in more.
Thane said he didn't know which of the trees he'd planted was the oldest. But he can see the effects of his work on neighborhoods where mass plantings took place all at once, mainly on the streets. And two neighborhoods have had more of that than any others.
"I've gone back in Riverside and College Hill and looked back on some of those we planted. It might be a planting that's 15 years old, and I'm just amazed how time has passed and how big they've gotten. Some are maples that get good fall color and added a lot to the neighborhood." That includes the bend of Autumn Blaze maples that's a must-see on Circle Drive in College Hill. (They are also the answer to one of the public's most common questions for Thane: What are those gorgeous fall-color trees on Central between Tyler and Maize?)
Thane says he can't pick his favorite type of tree, but "Chinese pistache" passes his lips.
"The park board has always pushed diversification of trees, so that there's not too much of any one thing in case diseases or insects come in."
I can feel a rumble like thunder as Thane leaves the scene. His boss, Tim Martz, will also retire later this year.
Thane says it's just a matter of time until the emerald ash borer arrives in and wipes out a chunk of the city's ash trees. The pest has made it as far as Missouri so far. But he's not quite as sure about how Wichita's landscape will change in a different, worsening economic climate.
"We just don't know how long that's gonna last. Hopefully not more than a couple of years. There may be more of a lag with municipalities than it is with private industry. The city is outsourcing a lot of the mowing. That's a big change for us to adjust to. There's cutbacks everywhere, in us buying trees also. Also the flowers, the budget got reduced. There's going to be less of everything.
"I don't think there's going to be any problem with the maintenance on the trees. The more noticeable change is going to be in the mowing, parks in general. The grass may be taller, there may be a few more weeds because of a lack of money to buy herbicide.
"The trees are such a long-term investment that we hate to cut back on any maintenance of that. We want to see those thrive."
Thane will be honored at the city's Arbor Day celebration on April 30.
He is retiring at age 59.
"There's a lot of change coming with the economic times we're in, and it just seemed like a good time to leave."
It's almost time to go out and see the Thunderclouds forming.