Tornado cleanup, one tree at a time; Millbury man wields chain saw in cleanup.
The skeletal remains of hundreds of trees are stark reminders of the tornado fury of just over 16 months ago in portions of Sturbridge, Brimfield, Monson and Wilbraham.
For John E. Deeter, 71, of Millbury, those eerie-looking trees have become bench marks for progress made in the aggravatingly slow, seemingly never-ending battle to remove the scars of June 1, 2011, especially in the Paige Hill Road and Haynes Hill Road sections of Brimfield, and along Dearth Hill Road in nearby Monson.
A lot of volunteers have donated hours and hours to aid the victims in these towns as they try to regain some semblance of what life was like prior to June 1, 2011, but Mr. Deeter's efforts stand out because he has no ties to this area, save for his skills with a chain saw; a major weapon in this ongoing effort.
Mr. Deeter's assistance to victims of the tornado's wrath has gone under the radar because he wanted it that way. For that reason, he thought twice about being interviewed for this story.
"I'm not very big on publicity," he said. "I tend to be low key."
But he hopes to get the message out that that there still is plenty of skilled work to be done, perhaps inspiring more volunteers.
He said the people affected in these towns continue to impress him.
"I'm inspired by the people that got hit with that thing and the way that they hang in there and work together," he said. "They're tough.
"They're very gracious in accepting any help that you can give them," he said. "They're a wonderful bunch of people, but they have a lot of dignity."
He said they are appreciative of the assistance, but will keep on striving by themselves if volunteers do not show up.
"If the help doesn't come in they don't whine or complain or bellyache; they just get out there and just keep doing what they were doing," he said.
Mr. Deeter did a lot of tree work when he was younger and was always interested in chain saws, to the point that he collected them. With that background, it was almost a natural that he step forward and volunteer to become part of the restoration task force in the Brimfield-Monson-Sturbridge area.
"When the tornado occurred, a friend of mine and my sister both mentioned that they needed chain saws out there, so I started out for Sturbridge," he said. That was a few days after the tornado hit.
Not long afterward he joined with a larger force of volunteers and found himself in the devastation on Paige Hill Road in Brimfield.
"I was working with Gina Lynch at the Senior Center and Congregational Church in Brimfield, and generally they would send me out with a crew or a church group. I've spent more time on Paige Hill than anywhere else."
He said they did not like to send volunteers out alone if they worked with chain saws.
Mrs. Lynch has gotten to know Mr. Deeter up close and personal over this long period. She is the Senior Center director in Brimfield, as well as wife of Ian Lynch, pastor of the Congregational Church on Route 20 at the town Common, and she is director of the relief center in the church, which has served as headquarters for restoration activities, as well as a shelter and cafeteria for victims. Mrs. Lynch has been honored for her tornado relief work as a member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women's 2012 class of Unsung Heroines.
This whole tornado experience and 16-plus months working with so many giving people has been a special experience for Mrs. Lynch.
"It's been life changing," she said, "and I've heard that from volunteers as well as survivors."
"From my perspective, because I'm working with the homeowners as well as the volunteers, just to see the outpouring of caring is amazing. People like John Deeter. He doesn't live here. He just comes out with his chain saw and does it," she said.
She said Mr. Deeter sets himself apart because he is unique. Unlike a lot of volunteers he has always been available. "We've never had to call him. The weird thing is when we need him, he shows up. It's amazing."
"He is awesome," said Mrs. Lynch, who recalled that when she first met Mr. Deeter all he said was "I have a chain saw. Where do you want me to go?"
She said he has become sort of addicted to the volunteer work, and Mrs. Lynch suspects he enjoys watching progress, despite the fact that it can be so slow.
"I just let him work where he wants to now," she said. "He's built relationships with the homeowners."
She said the amount of volunteer help in local towns has dwindled over time. There has not been a volunteer group since August, but right now the need is for skilled people and they are hard to come by.
"There's acres and acres and acres of timber to deal with," Mrs. Lynch said. "That's the biggest problem, so people with chain saws are needed and we need somebody to pull stumps or somebody that can grind stumps. It's that kind of labor that we don't have."
Financial donations also remain important to the restoration effort. They can be mailed to The Pathway for Renewal, P.O. Box 317, Brimfield, MA 01010. Those donations will be used to assist victims in Sturbridge, Brimfield, Monson, Wilbraham, Charlton and Southbridge. Mrs. Lynch said $500,000 is needed to restore the towns through property cleanup.
Monetary gifts earmarked just for victims in Brimfield should be mailed to the Brimfield Senior Center, P.O. Box 172, Brimfield, MA 01010.
In June of last year when the tornado hit, Mr. Deeter was semi-retired, but was still employed part time at an auto dealership in the Greater Boston area. But in September of that year he got laid off, enabling him to spend even more time volunteering for the tornado cleanup campaign.
He was out there earlier this month and plans to continue as long as he is needed. He tries to get in one or two days of work a week in Brimfield. He also works on an on-call basis at Ahearn Equipment in Spencer.
"At my age I tend to not go two days back-to-back because it's quite athletic and it takes me a little bit of time to recover, but it's become somewhat of an obsession with me," he said.
The amount of devastation continues to leave an impression on him.
"I know that in my lifetime I'm not ever going to see it looking like it used to look like," he said.
Mr. Deeter said he is the one who has gained from this experience, because first of all he enjoys working with chain saws and secondly he is very pleased to be helping people who need serious help.
"I don't know if I'd be so generous with my time if I were not doing something that I like, but it came, I think, at a point where I kind of really needed something like this in my life."
"And the exercise is incredible," he said. "I've never felt this good in my life."
PHOTOG: J.P. ELLERY
CUTLINE: Mr. Deeter's chain saw is a major weapon in the battle to restore towns ravaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado.