Many of the “regulars” at the OPPD Arboretum know him by name.
They smile and wave as they walk their dogs, maybe engage in some small talk. But few may realize all that forester Dave Walsh has done for the facility they love.
At the end of July, Walsh retired from OPPD after 32 years in the Forestry department. But what he has left behind at the arboretum at 108th and Blondo streets is enjoyed by tens of thousands of people every year.
Walsh always wanted to work in forestry, even during high school, and dreamed of working as a forest ranger in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Instead, after college, Walsh and his wife headed to Guatemala to work in the Peace Corps, where he managed tree nurseries. The work involved collecting seeds, planting them then distributing seedlings.
Their desire to live close to family in Missouri Valley, Iowa, led them back to Omaha, where he began working at OPPD in 1984.
At first, Walsh was busy working with the utility’s vegetation contract, the tree-trimming program. But in 1990 he began to work on the arboretum.
“The arboretum’s objective is about planting the right tree in the right spot,” he said. “We just wanted to use it for an educational tool to provide information to customers about planting around electrical equipment, but also looking at energy conservation.”
While the arboretum does all of those things, it has also become a popular spot for weddings, professional photographers, nature lovers and dog walkers. The popularity surprised Walsh.
“I didn’t ever think it would be this popular. But I don’t think the educational stuff has been overwhelmed by all of the functions that take place here. It’s just more of a multiple-use place.”
He added that as people enjoy the arboretum in their own way, they are still passively being educated by seeing the signage and displays.
During his last week at OPPD, Walsh was at the arboretum when he was approached by a visitor, Marilyn Sedlacek, and her dog, Joey.
She handed Walsh a card and congratulated him on his retirement.
“I just hope you come out often to see what you’ve created,” Sedlacek said, sweeping her arm out wide. “It’s been a pleasure.”
She’s been coming to the arboretum nearly every day since it opened, and even before the official opening, when “it was just Don out here with the wheelbarrow.”
Don Norwood is a part-time employee at the arboretum, and someone Walsh said he would miss. He credited Norwood with “fine-tuning” everything they do at the arboretum.
“This really is a beautiful place to come,” Sedlacek told Walsh. “Every day is a good day when you get to come out here.”
After Sedlacek continued on her walk, and a congratulatory hug, Walsh said the most rewarding part of his career at OPPD has been relationships with customers like Sedlacek and with other Forestry employees.
“There’s nothing better than working your tail off and have someone come out here and appreciate it,” he said.
The arboretum has approximately 1,000 plantings of trees and shrubs, and Walsh estimates he’s either had a hand in selecting or planted each of them himself.
But he gives a lot of the credit to Forestry employees and support from OPPD senior management.
“Over the years, they gave me a budget and let me do what I wanted,” Walsh said. “That’s how this happened. At any time they could have said, ‘Arboretum? Who needs that?’ It’s always been a priority.”
Now that he’s retired, Walsh is going to focus on some new priorities, like remodeling bathrooms, traveling with his wife, Julie, and spending time with his eight children and six grandchildren.
But long-term, he may still have one foot in the field he loves. Walsh said he may do some consulting work, but nothing “heavy-duty.”
Visiting the arboretum will be on his list, too, he said.