An 80-foot tree towered over the driveway that Erik Pauze had just pulled into.
It was shortly after dinner time on a summer evening when homeowner Matt McGinley saw what he initially assumed was a real estate agent walking up to their upstate New York house.
“My name is Erik,” Pauze told McGinley. “I’m from Rockefeller Center. I’m here to look at your tree.”
McGinley went inside to tell his wife that their tree had a visitor.
Pauze told them he is the head gardener at Rockefeller Center, responsible for selecting the site’s annual Christmas tree. He had been driving through the Vestal, New York, neighborhood to scout another tree when he spotted the McGinley’s Norway spruce.
Would they consider donating it as the 2023 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree?
“I went inside and Googled him,” Jackie said. “And it was him, the image was the same person in my driveway. So, that kind of is how it began, just having somebody pull into your driveway in June.”
Nearly six months later, the tree stands in Rockefeller Center, one of New York City’s most iconic of Christmas symbols.
One that Pauze selects, nurtures and transports each year.
“It’s great to be part of the tradition,” he said. “A lot of great people work here to make this happen, and it means a lot because it makes a lot of people happy and creates a lot of great memories.”
Putting down roots
Pauze’s earliest memory of gardening was when he was in fourth grade, when he put down roots on a journey that would lead him to Rockefeller Center.
“It started at my aunt’s house, planting twigs and trying to find out why they never grew after that,” Pauze said.
His later plantings had better success.
Pauze went on to study landscape management at Farmingdale State College. In 1988, his class was visited by former Rockefeller Center gardens division manager David Murbach, who was seeking summer helpers. Pauze landed the position and it ultimately led to the only job and company he’s ever known.
“I’ve done nothing else,” Pauze said. “This was my first job right out of college.”
He grew into the position, becoming head gardener in 1995. Pauze and his staff tend to all landscaping in Rockefeller Center, including the famed Channel Gardens, various rooftop gardens, trees lining the street and other amenity spaces and terrace plantings that beautify the area.
One of the other responsibilities that came with his new title and workload was selecting the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree each year.
Becoming the tree hunter
Pauze selects a scouted or nominated tree that meets all of the Rockefeller Center standards. The tree typically must be at least 75 feet tall, 45 feet wide and have the shape of a traditional Christmas tree.
“You’re looking for the perfect tree, the one that you would want in your living room or your family room,” Pauze said. “It’s perfect all the way around.”
And it can be safely cut down and removed from the property, an intricate process that Pauze oversees.
After selecting the Rockefeller Center tree, Pauze visits the house regularly to water and feed it with 800 to 1,000 gallons of compost tea and water. When preparing for the cut, workers tie the branches together before a crane lowers the tree onto a flatbed truck that transports it to Manhattan.
“I would say that the majority of the trees are easy access,” Pauze said. “But the ones that are more difficult, you tend to think it out a little bit more and go deeper into the playbook and go and get it.”
Like lifting a 12-ton tree situated in the backyard up and over a house, or laying a crane access road to get to a tree that’s set deep in the property, or pulling up to a house and asking if you can have their tree.
“Sometimes it takes a little convincing,” Pauze said. “Sometimes they just want to be talked through it. After that there’s usually a little family discussion and then I’m up there watering it and feeding it.”
And no tree is too far.
“If you’ve got a tree in Hawaii that we can go check out, then let’s go get it,” Pauze said. “If we got a good tree and the family is willing to donate it, it’s a great story.”
Getting to Rockefeller Center
Only in New York might you drive alongside an 80-foot Christmas tree.
Pauze is along for the ride each year as the truck transports the tree from its original location to Rockefeller Center. The trip takes about 12 times longer when hauling a 12-ton tree, with this year’s three-hour drive during a traditional commute becoming a day-and-a-half journey, crossing paths with excited motorists along the way.
“The same car that passed you is now on the off ramp or on the side of the road and they’ve got their phones out,” Pauze said. “Lately you’ll see a bunch of people on an overpass taking pictures as we drive by. You give them a little toot of the horn and everybody gets all excited.”
When the tree reaches Rockefeller Plaza, the process is reversed. A crane lifts it off the truck and Pauze and workers guide the trunk into the tree stand. The tree is then secured with cables, surrounded by scaffolding so it can be wrapped in 50,000 multi-colored LED lights, and topped with a 900-pound Swarovski star.
It’s then ready to be viewed by an estimated 750,000 people per day after the lighting ceremony…which must be Pauze’s favorite workday of the year, right?
“I guess it depends on when you ask me,” he said. “The day I find the tree and I know that this is the one I want to bring to Rockefeller Center, this is the one that’s going to make millions of people happy, sure, that’s an outstanding feeling. If you ask me the morning of the tree-lighting, I’m going to say tree-lighting day.”
Does he have a favorite Rockefeller Center tree that he has selected?
“Nice question,” he said. “My answer is going to be, ‘Every year the tree gets better.’”
Was he bothered in 2020 when some were underwhelmed by their first glimpse of the tree that they said was deemed a metaphor for a year that was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic?
“Wait until we plug it in,” Pauze said he told the critics. “You’ll see exactly how it looks.”
‘He is the magic of all of this’
When Pauze pulled out of the McGinley’s driveway, he left not only with a tree, but with new friendships.
“Going around to the different areas, you get to shake hands with a lot of people and build relationships with a lot of people,” Pauze said.
It’s almost as if Pauze becomes a branch on the family tree.
“He, to me, is the magic of all of this,” Jackie McGinley said. “He is just an incredible human being who is so uniquely suited to his job…He is so kind and considerate and skilled at what he does. I just felt like I had this new long-lost family member who just happened to also be interested in my tree.”
That tree, nurtured for months by Pauze as it towered over a driveway, will now light up for the world to see in Rockefeller Center.
“There’s a lot of early days and long nights,” Pauze said. “But those two or three seconds right after you light the tree and the crowd yells and everybody has their phones out taking pictures…Man, right there, it makes it all worth it.”
Source: NBC New York
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