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Spruce measures Worcester woman’s life

After more than 50 years, her twig is a mighty spruce

WORCESTER — Josephine Rutkauskas, who will be 87 in early June, wants you to know about the sprig of blue spruce she planted in her yard when Jack Kennedy was in the White House.

But before she explains why, she'd rather you not call her Josephine. Her nickname is ‘‘Dodo.’’ Yes, like the clumsy, flightless bird that went extinct and whose name became a synonym for a silly or stupid person.

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‘‘If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t go by that name all these years. There’s no such thing as a dumb bird,’’ Rutkauskas said.

Anyway, back to that day in the early 1960s when, with a table spoon, she scooped out a small hole in her Quinsigamond Village yard and planted a roughly 4-inch-long evergreen sprig.

Which grew as a spruce tree, yes, but also a kind of living yardstick with which to measure a long, mostly happy life.

When her children started school, allowing Rutkauskas to go to work as a baker at a Vernon Hill junior high that’s now an elementary school, the spruce was waist tall.

When her kids moved away as adults, it towered over her diminutive frame.

She was on high alert every December in those years, fearing somebody might creep into her yard with a bow saw and poach the pleasingly conical spruce for use as a Christmas tree.

When her husband, William ‘‘Sam’’ Rutkauskas, got sick with terminal cancer in the late ’90s, a tree bandit would have needed a flatbed truck and small crane to make off with her spruce.

Today, it’s as tall as her roof, maybe 25 feet in height or so.

Rutkauskas remains impressively spry for a woman her age. She bustles around the house easily as ‘‘The Price is Right’’ blares from an unseen television in another room.

The wooden steps of her back deck barely slow her down as she leads visitors out to see her tree.

She smiles a lot. She laughs a lot, at her jokes and yours.

Oh, you want to take her picture? She just put some lipstick on earlier, so sure, go ahead.

The sprig from which her tree grew had been a giveaway, part of an Arbor Day promotion put on by what was then a new burger joint in the Webster Square area called McDonald's.

Nicole DiNoia, a regional spokeswoman for McDonald’s based in Boston, said the restaurant on Main Street opened in 1961 and was Worcester’s first McDonald's.

DiNoia couldn’t unearth any specific information on the Arbor Day tree giveaway in Worcester, but said she was able to confirm that such promotions were held during that period.

Rutkauskas said she has a clear memory of planting the spruce the same day as she got it. The McDonald’s hadn’t been open long at the time, she said, so the tree giveaway likely was in 1961.

She didn’t really expect the feeble little clipping to take root, but thought she'd give it a shot since it was free.

‘‘Every day I looked at it and gave it a little sip of water. When I saw it was taking, that it was really going to grow, I watered it every third day or something,’’ she recalled.

Sometimes she marvels at how fast it grew into a sturdy tree that would look at home in a Colorado forest.

Then she remembers that her spruce has had half a century to fill a corner of her side yard on Millbury Street.

The tree grew at a normal pace for its species.

The only speedy thing was the passing of time.

‘‘You know, when you got kids, they’re going to school. Then they’re graduating. Then this and that, and the time goes by so fast, you don’t realize it,’’ Rutkauskas said.

‘‘Before you know it, the kids are gone and the tree is still here, and it’s a big one, you know.’’

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