"Plant trees, plant hope."
That was Tom Spencer’s unembellished message recently.
Spencer, a longtime leader in Austin media, nonprofits and environmentalism, suffered a serious stroke on Sept. 2. He entered NeuroRestorative, a Round Rock rehabilitation facility, in late November.
He and other patients are currently in lockdown mode for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
These days, Spencer thinks coherently but, because of the stroke, speaks with tremendous difficulty.
"I believe he knows exactly what he wants to say, but his speech limits him," says his sister, Diana Hoffman. "For such an eloquent person, this is majorly depressing and frustrating."
Still, his message of support for the new Tom Spencer Million Trees for Austin Fund, organized by TreeFolks, an advocacy nonprofit that he formerly led, came through loud and clear over the phone.
"Austinites are the people I love," Spencer said not long before the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. "But they feel terrible because of the times. It’s hard to see the future, but trees are a part of that future. It’s a good time to think about rebirth and to make plans. Everybody loves trees. It’s a time to plant trees."
A poet, photographer and journalist, Spencer is perhaps best known as the longtime host of "Central Texas Gardener" on KLRU, Austin’s public television station. He produced and managed many documentaries. He also hosted a public affairs program on the same station.
Spencer wrote regularly for area publications, including his "Over the Hedge" column for the Austin Chronicle from 1989 to 2006, as well as occasionally for the American-Statesman.
In another facet of his life, Spencer served as the CEO for key Austin nonprofits such as Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT), I Live Here, I Give Here, and, before his stroke, TreeFolks.
The group, founded in 1988 with the dedication of one sapling as a response to the fight against global warming, has planted almost 3 million trees. It also has been among the most successful urban forest advocacy organizations in the country.
Along the way, TreeFolks has been deeply involved in the restoration of landscapes after the Bastrop County Complex fire of 2011 and the Blanco River flood of 2015.
The new campaign, intended as Spencer’s legacy, is part of a much larger global goal.
"Houston, London, New York and dozens and dozens of other cities across the world have undertaken such an initiative as a means of fighting global warming and fighting climate change," civic leader and retired attorney Richard Craig says. "He was hard at work on this project when he was struck down. Unfortunately, the happy hunting days of fundraising appear to have passed with the onset of COVID-19. But Tom’s dream deserves fulfillment, and we are going to still try to make it happen."
Part of Austin
According to a biographical sketch that accompanies his collected papers: "Tom Spencer was born in Duchess County, N.Y. His parents were avid gardeners and their family home was a former apple orchard set in the scenic Hudson River Valley. Spencer was 15 years old when his family moved to Port Arthur following his father’s relocation for work. After Spencer graduated from high school, the family moved to Houston."
"Despite his public persona, Tom is deeply private," sister Diana Hoffman says. "He has the ability to relate well to a ton of different types of folks, but his personal self is a special gift reserved for a handful of lucky recipients. Growing up, I disliked, fought and sparred with him verbally. He is now one of my best friends. I want all of him back."
Spencer earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas in 1979, his bio continues, and to make money for traveling and to advance a career in landscaping, Spencer went to work at Woodlands Landscaping in the Houston area, where he learned the fundamentals of landscape design. In 1982, after moving back to Austin to pursue a master’s degree at UT, he began a job at KLRU.
Shortly after starting, he became a producer and quit his studies to commit to a career in broadcasting. In 1983, Spencer began hosting and producing "The Wildflower Hour," a long-running weekly radio program on gardening, for KLBJ-AM.
Employed by KLRU for 26 years, Spencer oversaw nationally distributed documentaries on art, architecture, Texas history, Austin issues and the natural world.
"Tom has been a visible spokesman for environmental concerns in Austin for decades," says Andrew Smiley, current executive director of TreeFolks. "Tom's work has elevated issues related to water, wildlife and conservation and has provided approachable solutions that the whole community can participate in. For example, he has shared his commitment to native plants and natural gardening methods in both an educational and inspirational way through his TV and radio programs."
Last year, TreeFolks established the Tom Spencer Million Trees for Austin Fund through the Austin Community Foundation in order to fulfill Tom's vision of planting yet another million trees in Central Texas.
"The trees will provide cooling and shading in our city," Smiley says. "Trees planted in riparian zones in the region will address climate change issues by sequestering carbon, slowing flood waters, preventing erosion, and rebuilding wildlife habitat. These million trees and more will also honor Tom's lifelong work and stand as his legacy for generations to come."
Although it is not currently tree-planting season, Smiley says the project eventually could involve planting millions of diverse native saplings and restoring thousands of acres of streamside habitat.
"There are actually 1,000 miles of stream courses in our targeted area, many of which have been stripped of their trees," says Abi Shirley, chairwoman of the TreeFolks board of directors. "What should be tree-covered ribbons of green have turned into eroded and flood-prone gullies that have poor water quality, are devoid of shade and no longer shelter diverse species of wildlife."
Despite his limitations, Spencer is still helping with the campaign.
"While he is recovering, Tom is continuing to find a way to make our world a greener place for future generations by encouraging Austinites to support the planting of trees in Austin through the creation of the fund," Shirley says. "Money raised in this fund will go directly to getting trees in the ground and providing education to a new generation of environmental stewards."
"Tom is committed to sharing knowledge and leaving the world a better place than when he found it," says Linda Lehmusvirta, longtime producer of "Central Texas Gardener." "He is truly an inspiring person."
The TreeFolks directorship seemed — and was — the perfect job for Spencer.
"Tom connected instantly with everyone at TreeFolks because he is very authentic, gentle and knowledgeable," Lehmusvirta says. "He is an eloquent speaker and poet, and he lent his gift of expression to write a plan for a Million Trees for Austin initiative. In the short time he was able to work for Treefolks before his stroke, he was brimming with excitement for this project and his energy was contagious to everyone around him."
While the campaign continues outside, has the lockdown affected Spencer’s mood?
"Tom definitely has had his ups and downs," his sister says. "The lockdown has exacerbated his sense of loneliness, and we often speak two to three times a day. I love that, and our conversations last about 10 or more minutes.
"I have heard several people say that they have reservations about calling him for fear they cannot understand him. Well, that is an issue; however, the big part of our conversations are just a reassurance to us both that ‘Tom’ is still here. There are more than a few moments when you can hear that, especially when he laughs."