A Local Life: Everett Hicks, 93, arborist who cared for Mellon family’s trees

“Nothing should be noticed,” Rachel “Bunny” Mellon once said about Oak Spring, the Fauquier County estate she shared with her now late husband, billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon. An intensely private woman, and a gifted horticulturist, she created a garden there of understated beauty.

In a garden, it’s easy not to notice the trees. Flowers are the crowd-pleasers. Yet it is the leafy branches that offer flowers the shade they need to thrive. And amid all the annuals, trees bring an element of permanence.

(FAMILY PHOTO) - Everett Hicks worked with Rachel “Bunny” Mellon on the selection and care of trees.

For nearly three decades, Mellon entrusted her trees to an arborist named Everett Hicks. He died Sept. 19 at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg of complications from cancer, his son David Hicks said. He was 93.

Mellon, now 101, no longer gives interviews, according to a spokeswoman. Her acquaintances tell the story of a devoted partnership between Mellon and Mr. Hicks — one outlived by many of the trees they selected, planted and pruned together at her numerous homes and at the White House Rose Garden that she designed.

“He created what she liked,” said Irvin Williams, a White House gardener for 59 years and a frequent visitor to the Mellon estate. “And that made her happy.”

Mr. Hicks was already a veteran arborist when Mellon hired him away from the Davey Tree company in 1961. The Saturday Evening Post had profiled him in a 1948 article about tree workers, describing him as “lean, personable and weather-beaten.”

He would remain a constant presence in Mellon’s gardens until his retirement in 1989. Hugh Newell Jacobsen, an architect and friend of the Mellon family, recalled seeing him at work at the Virginia estate.

“There was Everett on top of a ladder on top of a horse-drawn flatbed cart,” he said. “He had a smock on and a hat. He was trimming the trees just like they should be in a painting.”

One of Mr. Hicks’s most remarkable achievements at Oak Spring was an arbor of crab apples. He built a steel structure and over several years trained the stubborn plants to follow its curve — a spectacle when they were in bloom.

“You’d have to see it to believe it,” said John Dingus, a 44-year employee of Davey Tree who worked on projects for the Mellons.

In Mr. Hicks’s care, nothing, it seems, went unnoticed. Near the airstrip for the family’s private plane, he shaped the trees’ canopy to create a more pleasing vista from the air. In the less sweeping spaces of the Mellons’ New York home, he used the espalier pruning technique to train plants to grow on flat planes.

Working at their property in Antigua, in the West Indies, he found himself in a botanical world he did not know. He educated himself about tropical plants and traveled with some frequency to the island to keep pace with the trees’ unrelenting growth.

At the beginning of the Kennedy administration, Jacqueline Kennedy called on Mellon, her friend and confidante, to remake the Rose Garden. Naturally, Mr. Hicks came with her. He shaped the branches of the magnolias that anchor the garden to this day, Williams said.

“The entire character of this empty space was changed by their presence,” Mellon wrote in 1982 in a 12-page document, provided by Mr. Hicks’s son, that describes the work on the garden. “Combined with the knowledge of pruning large trees,” she wrote, Mr. Hicks “had the eye and talent of a sculptor.”

One afternoon in the early stages of the project, Williams recalled, John F. Kennedy stopped to talk to the gardeners. The president asked Mr. Hicks — then high up on a ladder in a newly planted magnolia — whether the garden would be finished by his second term.

When President Kennedy was assassinated less than two years later, Mr. Hicks found and then helped plant the black locust trees that Mellon had chosen for the Arlington National Cemetery grave.

Everett Coburn Hicks Sr. was born June 19, 1918, in Masonville, N.Y., the youngest of nine children and the son of British immigrants. As a child, he moved to Jefferson, Md., where his father, a Congregationalist minister, had found a job on a farm.

At age 13, Mr. Hicks lost his father in an accident during a barn-raising. He quit school and got a job on the same farm to help support his family.

One day a Davey crew came to the property for some tree work. Captivated by the men’s ascent into the branches, Mr. Hicks promised himself that he would go to work for the company when he turned 18. And he did.

The job proved as good as he had hoped. He didn’t mind the long hours or the hard labor. “That suits me,” he told the Saturday Evening Post, “as long as I can get up and down a tree.”

His early assignments took him to rich estates on the East Coast. In New Jersey he met Mary Ford, whom he married before serving in the Army during World War II. She died in 2000 after 59 years of marriage.

Survivors include his second wife, Rosalie Arcand Hicks of Tampa; three children from his first marriage, Barbara Orlando of Fredericksburg, Everett “Butch” Hicks Jr. of Fredericksburg and David Hicks of Bethesda; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

The tree that Mr. Hicks loved most, his son said, was a maple variety called October Glory. He planted one at his wife Mary’s grave at a Middleburg cemetery.

“It’s a beautiful tree,” said Tyler Gore, the undertaker who buried Mr. Hicks in the same spot several weeks ago. The maple is about 25 feet tall, impossible not to notice.