Hard Work keeps Musicians on the Farm

The signs along the country lane leading to Hladky’s Christmas Tree Farm give clear instructions: Drive up the road and park by the house. But on a December Saturday, the space at the house is clogged with vehicles. Overflow cars line the shoulders of the lane.

It’s a prime day for the pursuit of a perfect Christmas tree—a hunt that Bob and Joan Hladky have hosted for more than 50 years on the Pleasant Hill tree farm they began as a hobby in1962.

They started small—just 5 acres of evergreen trees. It’s not as if they didn’t have other demands on their time back then—a young family with three children to dress, feed and get to school. Joan’s college studies at the University of Oregon. Bob’s responsibilities in his second year on the University of Oregon music faculty.

“Hard work never hurt anyone,” he explains with a nod to the Scotch-Irish mother who engrained that philosophy into him as a child in Stillwater, Okla.

“Some friends my age think I am crazy, but I enjoy it,” he says at 90. “This physical activity is what keeps me going. I have outlived three of my doctors. I enjoy physical work.”

For several years, back when the task of hurling a cut tree on top of the car didn’t blunt enthusiasm, my husband and I made an annual drive to Hladky’s tree farm to hand-select our Christmas tree. This year, I was pursuing not a tree but a connection made in 1981 when I first met Bob.

An acclaimed musician, he was a part of a panel of talented residents I’d been invited to moderate. That’s where I learned he had a talent for more than music. He was a farmer on the side—a man who gets restless without manual labor and plenty of time out of doors. I wondered how long he intended to stay on the farm.

It turns out that Bob, like me, has stopped tossing Christmas trees on top of cars. He no longer cuts and bundles acres of trees for the wholesale market.

Hired assistants ease the heavy work of harvest on a farm that has grown to 12 acres and 10,000 trees. These days he might even squeeze in a nap after lunch, leaving Joan to oversee sales during U-Cut season.

Making a Home for a Young Family

When Bob and Joan bought this Pleasant Hill acreage they’d been married just 10 years. The parcel offered 20 acres of bare land a hop and a skip down Enterprise Road from the Pleasant Hill schools where Joan, 84, taught for 35 years.

The two met in the Oklahoma City Symphony. She, a young flute and piccolo player in the orchestra, worked part time in the symphony office. He, a cello player, and college graduate, was recently returned from four years of military service.

They married in 1951 and lived on next-to-nothing while Bob pursued advanced degrees in music at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY. Joan’s income as a secretary at Eastman Kodak didn’t allow for more than wistful dreams of the high-quality cello Bob longed to own one day.

Son of a violin professor at Oklahoma State University, Bob was studying cello at age 14 when he heard a guest artist perform with his father’s orchestra.The buoyant sound of that musician’s fine, Italian cello never faded in Bob’s ears. He yearned to play such an instrument one day.

“It was alive,” he insists. “It vibrated when you touched it. I never dreamt that someday I would have that cello.”

In a dreams-come-true twist of fate, he bought that cello a few years later—a 1712 instrument crafted by a renowned artist. It was an extravagance far beyond a young couple’s budget made thinkable by an unexpected inheritance from Joan’s aunt.

He brought the cello to Oregon when they moved. Joan brought her flute and piccolo. Both brought a love of music, teaching, and community. Bob was principal cellist and Joan flautist when Eugene Symphony was founded in 1951. She played with the Symphony for 30 years. He moved on to help form Oregon Mozart Players and Oregon String Quartet. They played at church. She still performs with Eugene Symphonic Band.

Retirement didn't mean Stopping

After retirement from the UO at age 66, Hladky continued to guide private cello students for 20 years. But the famous 1712 Italian cello no longer resides in his study. No longer vibrates against his chest. It’s his voice that vibrates as he talks of letting the cello go when age and energy drained from him the discipline required to perform at the level he felt the cello deserved.

“I had it 52 years, he says. “Selling it was a decision made out of respect for the instrument. It was like losing a child.”

Such instruments belong to mankind, like fine art, he says. For half a century, he was that cello’s caretaker. When he could no longer share its song with the world, it was time to let someone else take that role.

Of course there are other cellos in the house--perfectly adequate to sustain the sounds of music that swirl from Bob’s upstairs study and Joan’s downstairs retreat in a bedroom vacated by grown children.

Stacks of boxes fill her workspace, most of it materials for Destination Imagination, a volunteer-run program that keeps Joan immersed in education 11 years after her retirement from middle school teaching. She serves as regional director of an area that stretches from Salem to Klamath Falls.

“I do more now than when I was in the classroom” she admits. “I really enjoy working with the kids.”

Boxes of drinking straws spill into the family room, ready for her to take to Ashland for a weekend imagination fair where they’ll be used in a timed challenge that tasks participants to build a tall structure with nothing more than creativity and straws. Each spring, she organizes a regional meet for 300 or more students at Pleasant Hill High School.

“Our philosophy is to be as active as we can,” says Bob, in what seems like understatement to me.

As for the farm—they can’t imagine leaving. No thought of giving up year-round tree pruning or annual visits from customers who make the farm a Christmas tradition. No plans to move from the split-level house with stairs that greet you at the front door. But transitions are underway.

This year, for the first time, they’ll plant no new trees to replace the holiday harvest. But they won’t take down the roadside sign to Hladky’s Christmas Tree Farm any time soon.

With something like 10,000 trees still standing, Bob figures he’ll be more than 100 years old before he runs out of work that keeps him occupied and trees for customers to cut. For now, that’s far enough to plan.

I’m guessing his mother would be proud.

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact her at spiritedwalker@gmail.com


Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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