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Cape Coral’s tree-planting advocate celebrates his 100th birthday

By Staff | Mar 29, 2008

On Thursday, Cape Coral resident and tree advocate Joe Stonis turned 100 years old. Stonis, known for planting many of the trees throughout the city, will celebrate his birthday Sunday at the park that bears his name.

Born on March 27, 1908 in Newark, New Jersey, he moved to Cape Coral in 1981 with his wife Doris after living in Chicago, Philadelphia and Memphis where he noticed one similarity in each city — parks abound with trees.

“We had the idea of making everything green, clean and beautiful,” said Stonis. “But what we saw was a desert, so we started a program to plant and protect trees.”

His goal of implanting trees in the Cape prompted an ordinance through city council that would require two trees to be planted per house before the homeowner could get a certificate of occupancy.

“If you have 1,000 homes that is 2,000 trees,” said Stonis.

Through the Cape Coral Beautification Association, Stonis and volunteers worked on putting different types of trees on the medians of major roadways in the Cape including Del Prado Boulevard and Cape Coral Parkway.

He explained that he typically planted “shade trees” such as mahogany and live oak because he wanted there to be shady canopies in the Cape. But the organization also planted numerous palm trees in places where these shade trees were not wanted.

“I always lived in an area where we had a lot of trees,” he said. “We also always had a garden and flower garden.”

Stonis and his family will celebrate his birthday this Sunday at the Joe Stonis Park on Ceitus Parkway in Cape Coral. In fact, he said, Sunday’s party will be the first time anyone has ever used the park’s pavilion since it was recently named.

After a year of planning the park, City Council decided to name it after Joe Stonis and announced the naming at an official meeting.

“The city thought my efforts should be recognized and designated the park in my name,” he said. “I fell off my chair when they said they were designating the park as the Joe Stonis Park.”

The National Arbor Day Foundation awarded him the Lawrence Enersen Award in 1999 for his work of planting trees around the Cape. The award is given to those who perform outstanding work in planting trees and conservation.

“I was the only person to receive the award in Southwest Florida and the oldest because I was 90 years old,” Stonis said.

He also was instrumental in earning the City of Cape Coral the Tree City USA Award.

In 2000, the city also awarded him the Pioneer Urban Forester award and he also was recognized by the Cape Coral Kiwanis Club and the Kiwanis International Foundation on the Tablet of Honor.

At the age of 95, Stonis wrote his first non-fiction book entitled “Slices of American Pie” which highlighted entrepreneurs in the early 1900s. Currently, he is writing “Pieces of the Past,” another non-fiction book on his memories.

“Each chapter will be a memory from the past,” he said. “More things have changed in the last 100 years than any other time in the world.”

He recalled the many differences between the world in 1908 and the world today in 2008 — differences in people’s lives and technology. And because of these differences, he said, people had to entertain themselves much differently.

“When I was growing up there were no radios, televisions or computers,” he said.

But as much as he has seen in the last 100 years, he remains passionate about the parks that he has helped create. One of his fears is that the city may decide years down the road to develop these parks.

“Nobody can touch those parks,” he said. “Once something is a park it is always a park.”

He also explained that he has seen a tremendous drop in volunteerism in the community. As a result, he said, the Cape Coral Beautification Association no longer exists, probably because people’s lives are becoming more hectic and a younger population aren’t embracing the same interests as the former generation, he said.

“I haven’t noticed anything different about my age, except for how people feel who have never shook the hand of a 100-year-old before,” he said. “I feel good and everything is fine.”