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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


NE Ohio Nursery Plants Trees in Tornado-hit Secrest: 'It's a Pay-it-forward Thing'

November 24, 2010

WOOSTER, Ohio — Thirty-some years ago, Ken Cochran gave Mario Cekada, just starting out in the nursery industry, a helping hand.


Last week, Cekada returned the favor. His now-successful business, Rusty Oak Nursery of Valley City near Cleveland, spent two days planting trees in Wooster’s Secrest Arboretum.

A tornado in September knocked down 1,500 trees there. Cochran is the facility’s program director.

“Ken would talk to my dad when my dad was a nobody in the nursery business,” said Cekada’s son Kirk, Rusty Oak’s field manager and a former student of Cochran at the Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI) next door. “So it’s a pay-it-forward kind of thing.

“We’re trying to help as much as we can to put things back into place,” Kirk Cekada said as his power tree spade idled behind him, holding aloft a 15-foot tree with a massive, wedge-shaped rootball. A freshly dug hole awaited, its sides cut cleanly by the spade’s hydraulic blades.

The tornado hit the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), of which the arboretum is a part, and surrounding neighborhoods on Sept. 16. It left about 30 of the arboretum’s 120 acres virtually clearcut.

Since then, Cochran said, “The support from people in the industry” — in-kind donations of plants and labor — “has been tremendous.”

The Rusty Oak crew dug dozens of large spruce, zelkova and Manchurian ash trees from the arboretum’s nursery, hauled them a half mile or so, and planted them in places where there used to be tall trees, both in the arboretum proper and on the main OARDC campus.

“We’re grateful for their help,” Cochran said. “We couldn’t have gotten this work done without them, at least not nearly so soon.”

ATI and OARDC are both part of Ohio State University.

“I did a lot of my work (while at ATI) here,” Kirk Cekada said, pointing to OARDC’s tornado-flattened greenhouses nearby. “I remember all these places.” His brother and coworker Chad is a former student of Cochran too.

“Ken was my supervisor and taught a lot of my classes,” Kirk Cekada said. “He spent a lot of time with me here, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. He didn’t have to do that. So, any way we can help, we’re happy to do it.

“The only way we’re going to have places like (Secrest Arboretum), after a disaster like this, is by doing what we’re doing.”

Cleanup, repairs and replanting in the arboretum, both by volunteers and OARDC workers, will continue indefinitely.

Ohio State has started a Secrest Arboretum renewal fund. Learn more at or call 330-464-2148.

At the time of this writing, the arboretum and main OARDC campus remain closed to the public at large.

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Caption: KirK Cekada of Rusty Oak Nursery in northeast Ohio plants a Manchurian ash tree at the tornado-damaged Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. (K.D. Chamberlain image)

Kurt Knebusch
Ken Cochran