There’s no stopping this Bus

At the center of McCorkle Place stands the Davie Poplar, the massive tree scarred by lightning and hurricanes.

The Davie Poplar marks the spot where a delegation from Raleigh in 1792 chose to start what would become the nation’s first public university. Davie Poplar Jr., grown from a cutting planted in 1918, and Davie Poplar III, grown from the original tree’s seed, are planted nearby.

For a half-century, another fixture on this campus has been Bus Hubbard.

The last of seven children, Hubbard was born March 9, 1934, on the family farm in northern Chatham County, in a community of wood-frame houses, dusty roads, tobacco patches and gospel churches where amens on Sunday mornings echoed through the surrounding pines.

His first day on the job was in March 1953 – and even now, at the age of 76, he is not quite ready to consider when his last day might be.

Fifty-eight years is a long time to do anything, especially a job that entails climbing the tallest trees on campus to cut out dead limbs and broken branches. And for as long as anyone can remember, it’s been his job alone.

How does a man his age continue to find the strength and courage to climb trees as tall as the Bell Tower? Rather than explain, Hubbard sticks out his hand to show fingers lined and cracked and tough as leather, as stubby as chewed-down cigars and thick as rope. They look that way, he says, because they rarely feel the inside of a glove. When you’re hanging onto a rope 120 feet in the air, it’s a bad idea to have anything between you and the rope that might slip off.

At one time or another, Hubbard has been called upon to tend to every tree in McCorkle Place, Polk Place and Coker Arboretum.

But the day he drew the biggest crowd of spectators may have been nearly two decades ago when he was called upon to climb Davie Junior.

It was a beautiful cloudless day in October 1992, Ken Moore, retired assistant director of the Botanical Garden, remembers.

Hubbard made the climb, Moore says, to carry out Moore’s idea to mark the University’s 1993 bicentennial celebration by producing 100 saplings from the Davie Poplar so a Davie descendant could be planted in a schoolyard in every county in North Carolina.

He was to shake down seeds that a group of volunteers standing at the base of the tree could collect in bed sheets they were holding. There was just one problem: wind.

“The tulip poplar seeds are like maples – they are winged and are sort of like little helicopters,” Moore says.

As Hubbard shook the branches, all those seeds took off in the breeze, leaving the volunteers below scurrying after them. Fortunately, they caught enough of the seeds to distribute 100 Davie Poplar seedlings to students from across the state.

Seventeen years later, the original Davie Poplar still stands, and Hubbard still climbs. But when it comes to being irreplaceable, Hubbard stands alone.

Published January 1, 2011.