“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” -Abraham Lincoln. Just over one year now since I lost one of my most dear friends responsible, in part, for my career path in life. A friend and mentor who coaxed and nurtured not only my professional ambitions, but my personal ones as well. Dr. Stephen Schuckman was principally responsible for giving me my first job in horticulture and continued my horticultural education ‘til the end.
Stephen M. Schuckman was born in Quincy, Illinois and graduated Quincy University in 1981 with a bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry. Steve earned a master’s degree in botany from the University of Missouri in 1984. He moved to New Jersey in 1985 and served as an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University. Stephen managed Metropolitan Plant Exchange in West Orange, N.J. from 1987 to 1993 and it is here where I would meet my friend and mentor. In need of a summer job, Steve and Tony, my other lifelong wingman, hired me and set me on a career path in horticulture. Little did I know, at the time, that these two men would help mold and shape my entire well-being. Steve served as superintendent of Parks and Shade Tree in Montclair, N.J. and was one of the founders of the Montclair Farmer’s Market. A market, incidentally, that set the blueprint for others to follow. Steve was especially proud of! Stephen was the horticultural manager of the Van Vleck House & Gardens from 1998-2005 and he owned and operated his own company–First Mountain Arboriculture. Steve was a certified arborist by the New Jersey Arborists Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture and a certified tree expert by the New Jersey Society of Certified Tree Experts. Stephen served as the forestry consultant for several New Jersey communities, including Montclair, Bloomfield, Maplewood, Hawthorne and Glen Ridge. He was a continuing education instructor at Rutgers University and personally always rooted for Duke basketball, especially during the NCAA Tournament. Finally, Stephen, or as his dearest friends called him, “The Dr. or Schucky” was a contributing columnist for this publication.
While our initial time together was that of employee/management, Steve and I quickly became friends. Our love for plants and sports were strong common interests. Steve, Tony and myself would often go to dinner, travel and talk most things plants. In fact, most mornings, over the last decade, I would speak to “Schucky” at 7:00am, on the way to work, and our conversations usually began by telling jokes or singing to one another. Often we would modify lyrics to suit current pop culture, politics, religion, sports and even plants. Our initial “hello’s” often lead to cheeky talks and interesting takes on life, privy only for the two of us.
Steve, a self-professed “hippie”, loved to think outside the box, especially when it came to municipal street plantings. While many in his field would plant Zelkova’s, maples, and Ginkgo, a personal favorite of us both, Steve loved to seek out and speak to me about new tree types, cultivars he could use. He used Hardy Rubber Tree, Eucommia ulmoides, Persian ironwood cultivars, Parrotia persica, and male varieties of Kentucky Coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus, to name a few. Perhaps my favorite plant encounter with Steve was on June 17, 2017. I know this date because I have a video saved, on my iPhone, where the two of us raced to identify a plant at the New York Botanical Garden. The answer was white Enkianthus, Enkianthus perulatus, a deciduous shrub, that flowers white in April and May. A refined Asian type, this was one of the very few times my recall was faster than Steve’s. Steve had an appreciation for not only native plants, but really loved all plants from around the world. His yearly trip to Mexico had him smitten with tropicals and he loved his exotic ferns, orchids and other house plants.
Growing up, my parents told me: “When all is said and done, if you can count your true friends on one hand, you’re a lucky man.” Friends who nurture, educate, challenge, console, show compassion and not be judgmental. Often I tell friends, and now even our daughter, not to judge people by one episode, rather by their entire body of work. After all, no one person is perfect and to see beyond one’s eccentricities and imperfections shows character and embodies what true friendship and love is all about. Steve was my Sergeant Hulka (character from the movie Stripes), my big toe or index finger, a true friend who gave more than he ever asked for.