Ty Swenson
Donn Weaver stands in the shadow of his massive rhododendron tree on 48th Ave. S.W. in West Seattle on June 4.

SLIDESHOW: A fence with a story, and a tree that deserves one

Retired Seattle public school teachers and West Seattleites Donn and Jan Weaver are getting older (around the 80 mark), and have begun the conversation on moving out of their 48th Ave. S.W. home here soon for the easier option of an assisted living community.

Before they do so, however, Donn decided he ought to email the Herald and ask if we’d like to come over and check out “what I think may be the largest rhododendron in West Seattle,” during its two to four day showing of vibrant pink blossoms in peak bloom.

Finding myself in the Weaver’s part of town on June 4, and fresh off a visit to Whidbey Island and the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens (53 acres of woodland full of a dizzying array of rhododenrens, from traditional to never-before-seen hybrids), I decided I needed to see this tree.

Donn had emailed me his address, but upon turning onto 48th and surveying the landscape I put down the notepad and went by sight as it was clear where I needed to go. In full bloom, the Weaver’s tree cannot be missed as it imposes its pastel presence well into public space.

Donn last measured the tree four to five years ago and clocked it at 21 feet tall with a 23 foot spread. With a full head of flowers, 23 seemed modest.

As we circled the beauty he prunes religiously to create room for standing and walking by on the sidewalk underneath, Donn gave me some history. He purchased the home 30 years ago. It was a dilapidated mess with boarded up windows and an eye-sore exterior.

“It was one ugly house,” he recalled. It was also foreclosure, and he picked it up for $29,000. I think once they find a suitable assistive living community and list the home - with West Seattle inventory low and the seller’s market high and getting higher - that purchase will prove a ridiculously sound investment.

Donn didn’t even know the low-hanging scraggly tree out front was a rhododendron … until the flowers came. I asked him what kind it is, if he happens to know the scientific name. He didn’t.

We both agreed it didn’t really matter; it was just an impressive sight to behold.

About that fence …
The Weaver’s home is now clean, inviting and cozy after decades of do-it-yourself improvements, and it has a glowing white picket fence out front that deserves a second look with its descending and ascending teeth of cedar, punctuated by caps and balls at the main posts.

We got to talking.

At some point down the line, Donn designed and built the fence with inspiration from one he’d seen at Butchart Gardens in Canada as he wasn’t a fan of the standard model. Having spent his career as a music teacher and acting as the West Seattle Big Band director today, the undulating quality of his fence makes sense as it rises and dips like a musical score.

Back in 1998, the Weavers heard a knock at the door. It was a photographer from Better Homes and Gardens magazine who was traveling the streets of West Seattle looking for candidates for a white picket fence issue. The pros staged a few flower baskets on the sidewalk and took their shot. Later that year, the Weaver’s were in print.

Picket Pretty,” the caption read, “Inspired by a Victorian-era design, this scalloped fence and elegant gate were built from custom-cut cedar pickets and posts. The posts are topped with ready-made caps and balls purchased from a local lumber supplier.

And then, a column inch or so down, it read:

Buying information, page75

For those who turned to page 75, and as it turns out many did, they found Donn and Jan’s physical address and a note to send a letter for plans on how to build your own. The Weaver’s hadn’t been informed by the magazine their contact information would be posted. It was probably an error somewhere down the editorial assembly line.

For the next several years, the Weaver’s received letters from all over the nation asking for the plans. Jan brought out a box bursting with the correspondence they kept. It’s labeled: “5043 48th Ave. S.W. fence from Butchart Gardens inspiration to magazine celebrity.”

Jan said the letters were an unexpected surprise in their lives, and they always marveled at the variety of people who wrote; from young to old and rich to poor. Donn would send the plans back to his fans and, sometimes, they would send a letter back with pictures of their rendition. Friends were made, fences were built.

Realizing I’d probably taken a bit too much of the Weaver’s time and having asked them to dig up the magazine and letters so I could take a look, I figured it was time to say goodbye.

Donn said he was glad we had a chance to meet (I concurred) and that he was able to share his tree with the newspaper before the inevitability of eventually selling their home.

As a longtime West Seattle Herald reader, Jan told me she enjoys the paper every week but, as a retired English teacher, she can’t help but catch our occasional typos. I told her I was sorry for those mistakes (as I know how they pull you out of a story) and that I’d really appreciate it if she would email me suggestions on how to improve my grammar when she notices a gaff.

Donn looked at me with a knowing look.

“Careful what you wish for,” he said. “She’ll be emailing every day.”

I look forward to those emails, just as the Weavers look forward to their resident rhododendron’s yearly bloom.

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