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Frank Knight, 103; Mainer fought to save ancient elm

Fred Field

Frank Knight stood near Herbie in 2009. Wood from the 217-year-old tree, which succumbed to Dutch elm disease, was made into a casket in which he will be laid to rest.

PORTLAND, Maine — Frank Knight’s decades-long battle to save New England’s tallest elm served as an inspiring tale of devotion, so it is fitting that he will be laid to rest in a coffin made from the tree he made famous.

Mr. Knight, who died Monday at 103, had affectionately referred to the 217-year-old elm nicknamed Herbie as “an old friend.’’ The massive tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease and was cut down two years ago.

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Wood from the tree was made into a casket, a secret that was kept from Mr. Knight.

“To have them together like that is a wonderful thing. I feel like Frank took good care of Herbie. Now Herbie will take good care of Frank,’’ said Deb Hopkins, a close friend who succeeded Mr. Knight as the town’s tree warden.

Mr. Knight was running a logging business in 1956 when he became the volunteer tree warden in Yarmouth, 10 miles north of Portland, just as Dutch elm disease was killing trees by the hundreds. He realized he could not save the town’s elms, so he focused his efforts on one tree, a giant with a canopy that could be seen from miles away. When Herbie became afflicted, Mr. Knight instructed workers to selectively prune away diseased limbs. Later, pesticides and fungicides were applied. For five decades, Herbie survived 14 rounds of Dutch elm disease, thanks to Mr. Knight’s efforts.

Over time, Herbie became a local legend, and so did Mr. Knight. Schoolchildren learned about New England’s champion elm and his caretaker. People from all corners of the world had their photos taken with the tree.

Jan Ames Santerre, urban forestry program coordinator for the Maine Forest Service, recalled how Mr. Knight’s eyes sparkled when he took her to meet Herbie. “He looked up and said, ‘Isn’t he beautiful?’ You could see how much joy that tree brought and how much he had invested in it,’’ she said.

At age 101, Mr. Knight was sad but realistic when the 110-foot-tall tree finally met its demise. “His time has come,’’ Mr. Knight said at the time. “And mine is about due, too.’’

When the tree was cut down in January 2010, its trunk hit the ground with an earth-shaking thud as residents watched.

In death, the tree was given new life by artisans, who used the wood to make a variety of items, including a stunning electric guitar. Chris Becksvoort, a custom furniture maker in New Gloucester, created a simple casket with wooden railings at the request of the Knight family.

After the tree came down, Mr. Knight continued to live in his home. Over the weekend, he was moved to hospice care in Scarborough, where he died Monday, Hopkins said.

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