• ‘Gives Me A Purpose’

    Wednesday, November 27, 2019

    ELKTON — John Zirkle planted the first 1,000 pine trees in 1972, kickstarting what would eventually become a Christmas tree farm called Zirkle’s Evergreens.

    He planted the trees in the backyard of his home in Elkton, transforming a once open field into a line of green needles to share at Christmas.

    “The first tree I sold was in 1979 for $10,” he said.

    What started as a backyard tree farm grew to become a 12.5-acre endeavor that is home to five types of trees spread over two different properties.

    “It is a lot of work that people don’t realize,” he said.

    While Zirkle, 80, may not be able to run the farm in the same way he could nearly 50 years ago, one thing has remained the same — his desire to help others.

    For the last 10 years, Zirkle has been donating tree proceeds to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, most recently sending 50% of sales to the hospital.

    Founded in 1962, St. Jude’s mission is to advance cures and prevention for pediatric diseases through research and treatment, according to its website. Treatment invented at St. Jude has helped push the childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to more than 80% since opening.

    St. Jude’s mission is something that hits close to home for Zirkle, who has spent his most recent years battling prostate cancer and melanoma, along with losing his wife, Laura Bell, to cancer in 2017.

    “She was the love of my life,” he said. “Cancer was rough, but losing your wife is worse.”

    To support St. Jude, Zirkle wrote in his will that he would be leaving all of his money to St. Jude.

    “I want that to be my legacy,” he said.

    Zirkle said when someone writes in their will that they will be leaving something for the hospital, they are invited to St. Jude to tour the facility and speak with patients, families and survivors.

    In May, he made the trip to St. Jude in Memphis, Tenn., where he heard testimonies from several mothers who had children benefit from the work being done at the hospital.

    “[St. Jude] pays for everything, for parents to fly down and stay,” Zirkle said. “And a lot of the ladies had to give up jobs to stay with their children. I couldn’t think of anything better to give to.”

    Zirkle said he didn’t think he would make it to his 80th birthday due to his health, but said he would be operating the Christmas tree farm until he “couldn’t do it anymore.”

    “This gives me a purpose,” he said.

    As Zirkle prepares for the holiday season, he said he has close to 2,000 trees ready to be sold with more on the way. On Tuesday, Zirkle made a trip to West Virginia to pick up 25 10-foot firs for those who want taller trees.

    Zirkle said the amount of trees sold had been declining since artificial Christmas trees became popular.

    “I used to sell about 600, 700 trees. Now a good year is 200 trees,” he said.

    To ensure St. Jude would benefit from tree sales, Zirkle raised the selling price for large trees to between $50-$75. Those who wish can purchase a tree from Zirkle’s Evergreens can visit the farm on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment by calling 271-3819.

    Contact Jessica Wetzler at 574-6279 or Follow Jessica on Twitter @wetzler_jessica

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