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O Christmas tree, your lights shine for Peggy: The story of Union Depot’s holiday tree

On that morning last July, Dick Lang opened the Pioneer Press and read this question:

“Do you know of a tall — very tall — evergreen tree in Ramsey County that needs to find a new home in time for Christmas?”

In fact, he did.

It was Peggy’s tree.

Spring 1982

Peggy’s tree is our Christmas story to you, but this blue spruce’s story began on a spring day in 1982.

Ronald Reagan was president, gas cost $1.22 a gallon and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was playing in theaters. It was also the year that Dick and Peggy Lang’s 8-year-old daughter, Corrie, brought home a tree sapling from the second grade at St. Jerome’s School in Maplewood.

“It was like a free tree in a bag,” said Corrie (Lang) Hoff, now 48. “I just remember getting it in school, maybe for Arbor Day, and giving it to my mom. At that age, you give everything to Mom, but it might have been for Mother’s Day. We kept it in a pot indoors for a while.”

As she remembered this moment 40 years later, the evergreen tree was no longer in a pot. Instead, the spruce stretched high above her childhood home in the front yard. Some people estimate it at 45 feet tall — maybe even 50 feet.

Fall 1963

In the early fall of 1963, John F. Kennedy was president, a stamp cost 5 cents and “My Boyfriend’s Back” was playing on the radio. This is also when Dick met a girl named Peggy Einberger; they were both freshmen at St. Bernard’s High School in St. Paul.

“We met rollerskating in the gym,” Dick says. “St. Bernard’s used to have rollerskating on Friday nights; it cost a quarter to get in.”

After graduating in 1967, Peggy and Dick got married on May 23, 1970. After serving in the Army, Dick became a police officer in Maplewood, where the couple bought a home and raised their kids — Dirk, Corrie and Brian.

The Lang family home was a good place to grow up — or near. The Langs have a pool and a sand volleyball court in the back yard, and neighbors are always welcome.

Just like trees, children (and now grandchildren) are nurtured here.

“My kids are little fishes in the pool because of them,” says neighbor Amber Kempe. “Peggy was like an aunt or surrogate grandma.”

July 2022

As manager of her family’s social calendar, this grandma not only sent birthday cards (with a bit of money) to her own 10 grandkids (and one great-grandchild), but even to her sister’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Mailing cards to other people’s great-grandkids — who does that?” asks her son, Brian, with a smile.

Peggy, of course.

As the heart of her family, Peggy was as steadfast as the tree that towered over the family home. It was impossible to imagine life without her — but that is what her family must now do: Peggy died suddenly and unexpectedly July 6. She was 73.

Wanted: One holiday tree

It was just days after Peggy’s funeral when Dick opened the paper and read the question: “Do you know of a tall — very tall — evergreen tree in Ramsey County that needs to find a new home in time for Christmas?”

It was Union Depot in St. Paul that was seeking a tree — a tree that was grand enough to serve as the sparkling centerpiece on the North Plaza; the outdoor focal point for the transportation hub and event venue’s 2022 holiday season in Lowertown.

“Last year, we had 10 to 15 submissions by April,” said Lindsay Boyd, Union Depot’s general manager, in an interview with the Pioneer Press in July. “This year, we don’t have any. We also don’t have any ‘backup’ trees.

“We’re starting to get a little nervous.”

Dick thought of Peggy and her tree when he read of Union Depot’s plight.

“We’d been talking about getting it removed for the last two or three years — it’s too close to another tree,” he said.

The cost to remove the towering tree was prohibitive, though — one estimate ranged from $3,000 to $5,000.

If Peggy’s tree could be donated to Union Depot, it would be removed at no cost to the family. And what a memorial for Peggy it would be!

But would the tree qualify?

The Bingo tree

This family’s gesture wasn’t only about saving money; it was also about tradition.

You see, the spruce wasn’t the first tree the family had donated.

The first tree’s roots go back to Peggy and Dick’s dating days.

“We won it at Bingo in 1968,” Dick recalls.

After the win, Peggy’s dad planted it in the yard of her childhood home on Dayton Avenue in St. Paul. Decades later, after it outgrew its location, it became the 2005 holiday tree for Ecolab in downtown St. Paul.

The night of the Ecolab holiday tree lighting is a treasured family memory; there’s even a scrapbook.

“We rented a limo and drove around looking at the Christmas lights before going to Ecolab,” Dick remembers.

Now, Peggy was gone — but the timing of the Union Depot holiday tree search made it feel as if she was still guiding her family toward the joy of Christmas.

Christmas in July

After the Pioneer Press let the public know that Union Depot was still in need of a holiday tree, it felt like Christmas in July.

“My phone and email started blowing up,” Boyd said.

Dick was one of the callers; Boyd took down his address, along with several others. After checking out the trees on Google maps, she headed out to get a better look at the candidates.

It’s more challenging than you might think, to be a community’s holiday tree.

The next time you are walking or driving through your neighborhood, take a look at the evergreens in people’s yards: Often, the really tall trees are rather scraggly looking. Or, they might be too close to other trees or power lines. Sometimes, the candidates are not tall enough. Other times, they are too tall.

For a Union Depot tree, there are other qualifications that make the process even more selective: The tree — preferably 50 to 70 feet tall — must be within Ramsey County. It also needs to have outgrown its location or have other reasons for removal.

And Peggy’s tree?

When Boyd pulled up to the front yard in Maplewood, she looked up — way up. The tree was in need of a trim, but it was not scraggly; it was not as tall as some of their past trees, but it was tall enough in scale to match the grand backdrop of Union Depot. She thought:

“This could have potential.”

The final cut

Soon, the decision was whittled down to Peggy’s tree and a tree near the University of St. Thomas.

“A tree service (BJ Haines Tree Service) and a crane company we work with (Vic’s Crane & Heavy Haul Inc.) went through my final picks,” Boyd said.

The tree in St. Paul was hemmed in by other trees and on a tight city block; Peggy’s tree, in its relatively wide-open suburban setting, was the ideal candidate to be plucked up as the 2022 Union Depot holiday tree.

Boyd called to tell Dick.

“What a relief,” he said. “This is such good news.”

And then, he began to share the story of Peggy’s tree: How it had been just a sapling when their daughter gave it to her as a gift; how it had grown with their family for 40 years; how he and Peggy had wanted it to be a holiday tree, like their Bingo tree was for Ecolab; how he had read Union Depot’s plea just days after Peggy died.

“I found myself choking up and had to collect myself,” Boyd said. “I hadn’t known the full story until then.”

A vigil for a tree

It was spring when Corrie carried the sapling home from school; it was almost winter when she watched it leave.

“Lots of feelings,” she said as the trucks, equipment and crews arrived. “It’s just bittersweet, I guess.”

She was not alone in the cold, at least. She and her dad and brothers were surrounded by friends and family who came to say goodbye to the tree on this frigid Saturday morning in November.

Inside, there were coffee and doughnuts and people reminiscing in Peggy’s kitchen, where photos of the grandkids were all around them. Outside, there were workers with equipment that included a crane. It felt like a vigil for both a tree and a woman.

Dick had a question for the Union Depot folks in attendance.

“Could you put up a sign that says, ‘Peggy’s tree’?” he asked.

“I’ll make it happen,” Boyd said.

Outside, crews shoveled a path to the tree and secured it with straps. After the tree service made the cut, the crane operator picked it up and moved it carefully across the yard before easing it onto a trailer.

“It’s the first Christmas tree I’ve seen on the back of a vehicle this season,” said Mike Hogan, a family friend, once the tree was secured.

Afterward, the hole in the ground was filled with chips from the grinding of the stump, but the chips couldn’t quite cover the wound of the loss.

Inside, Corrie cried.

Driving to Union Depot

Peggy’s tree got an escort by the Minnesota State Patrol as it traveled the 4.6 miles from its street in Maplewood to the North Plaza of Union Depot. The jolly caravan following the tree included Union Depot staff and the media.

“It’s fun,” said Rick Bons, the project manager at Vic’s who handled this project, “but there’s a lot to coordinate, from the permits to the State Patrol to the route itself.”

The family did not join the caravan; they would wait to see the tree again when it was lit for the holidays.

On this Saturday morning, onlookers were the ones who watched the curious scene of a crane positioning the tree into a catch basin with a concrete base and spike specially designed to hold a tree. Overseeing the moment were Union Depot engineers.

Just like your Christmas tree at home, the situation required stepping back and questioning whether the tree was straight or crooked.

After the tree was straightened and secured, some of the crew members in yellow safety gear and hard hats celebrated, as jolly as elves at the North Pole.

“We’re going to the bars tonight, boys!” one proclaimed as they roughhoused in the snow.

‘Thank you’

Two weeks later, on the first Saturday night in December, Union Depot bustled with holiday activity in advance of the 2022 Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony, which also commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 2012 Union Depot building restoration: Outside, on the East Plaza, people shopped the stalls of the European Christmas Market. Inside, the royal family of the St. Paul Winter Carnival were in attendance at the unveiling of the 2023 Winter Carnival buttons. In the Head House, parents posed their kids for photos by decorated Christmas trees.

Outside, Peggy’s tree had been strung with lights by McCaren Designs, but it was still dark as it stood on the North Plaza. Above it, a nearly full moon hung in the sky.

Peggy’s family arrived in a white Hummer limousine, wearing Christmas sweaters and in merry moods after a driving tour of holiday lights. Before that, there was the annual cookie exchange hosted at Dick and Peggy’s home, just like always.

Of course, it wasn’t the same: As a big group of Peggy’s friends and neighbors joined the family at Union Depot, she was missed.

“She would love this,” said son Brian, wistfully.

Dick seemed excited.

“Peggy’s tree is out there,” he said, smiling.

Just after 7 p.m., the crowd began heading outside. In the lobby, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega stopped to greet the family.

“Thank you for the beautiful tree,” Ortega said to Dick.

‘Did you see the sign?’

The crowd clustered as close as possible to the tree, shoulder to shoulder in the cold, and looked up as they counted down: “4-3-2-1 …”

Suddenly, as fireworks went off, the blue spruce twinkled with 30,000 golden lights and one rose-gold star. If you squinted, it looked like a bejeweled brooch.

Dick’s smile was almost as bright as the tree.

“Did you see the sign?” he asked.

It was a small sign, next to the base of the tree.

“Peggy’s Tree,” it proclaimed — just like Union Depot promised.

Peggy’s tree

After the holidays, the blue spruce will be recycled. A piece of it will be carved into a keepsake for the Langs.

But through the New Year festivities, the tree will still sparkle nightly on Union Depot’s plaza

If you happen to see it if you’re driving around looking at holiday lights, remember: This Christmas, it is Peggy’s tree that shines for St. Paul.

FYI

Only 365 days until (next) Christmas! If you live in Ramsey County and would like to donate a tree to Union Depot’s 2023 Hub for the Holidays, email your address and a photo of the tree to [email protected] or call 651-202-2700.

O Christmas tree, your lights shine for Peggy: The story of Union Depot’s holiday tree

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