The Backstory: Elizabeth Dean's unremarkable life and remarkable legacy

Elizabeth Russell Dean lived her entire, quiet life in Ann Arbor. The daughter of one of the owners of the Dean and Company general store, she wasn't a prominent public figure or a major socialite. But what she did do changed the look of "Tree City" in a way that's almost impossible to fathom, let alone achieve.

Much more is known about Elizabeth’s father, Sedgwick Dean, than Elizabeth herself. He and his brother, Colonel Dean, ran a grocery store at 214 S. Main St. In addition to selling the usual staples, they also carried toys, fancy china sets, Christmas decorations, and gourmet coffee. The store was among the first in town to carry gasoline for motor cars, and was especially well-known for its hot peanuts.

Elizabeth’s mother died when she was born (it is not clear if she died in childbirth or shortly thereafter), so the young girl was raised by nursemaids and a maternal aunt called Mrs. Stebbins. Elizabeth and sister Clara, who was nine years her senior, grew up at 120 Packard. Their large home was built around 1860 by early settler Wallace Wines, who later sold it to his son-in-law Sedgwick. 

The home was close to Main Street, not far from the family store. Sedgwick would often take his carriage home to find his younger daughter on the front steps, waiting for a handful of those famous hot peanuts. A fiercely independent young woman, Elizabeth reportedly did not like school, and quit high school before graduating. She enjoyed traveling but was always extremely loyal to her home town of Ann Arbor.

After World War I, Elizabeth sold her family home to a local Lutheran minister. At some point, she lived in the Anberay apartments at 619 E. University. Eventually, she lived in a home at 1021 Vaughan St. She never married and had no children.

If not for what happened next, people would likely have remembered Elizabeth fondly, but eventually her memory would have faded along with memories of that fancy store on Main Street. However, Elizabeth did something remarkable with her passing in 1964 at age 79, and she did it not for herself but for the betterment of her beloved hometown.

Elizabeth's will left almost $2 million to the city of Ann Arbor to be held in a separate fund, and the income to be used for care, maintenance, and replacement planting of trees on city-owned property. News reports indicate that our city council was "stunned" upon reading her will and learning of this extreme generosity. Almost immediately, some questioned her exact intent — did she want her gift to provide for special projects and tree care beyond that which is provided in the regular budget, or should it be included in the forestry department’s regular budget? City councilmembers in the 1960s interpreted Elizabeth's will to provide for special care beyond the normal budget of the forest department, and carried out this request with several major tree-planting projects.

In 1965, a three-block promenade was installed on the 200 block of South Main. Four dozen planter boxes contained moraine honey locusts and leaf lindens, and four other planter boxes contained shrubs. Brick walkways lined the street between the planter boxes, along with drinking fountains and benches. In following years, the city used the income to match federal beautification grants, and to help with insect control. A plaque honors Elizabeth's gift to our city.

City council established the Dean Fund Committee in 1975. Committee members make recommendations to council on how to spend the interest generated by the trust fund. Proposals for ideas come from neighborhood associations, merchants, and citizens — anyone can submit a request. The fund has been responsible for the planting of over 5,400 trees along city streets and in city parks, and has helped to repair, maintain, and otherwise care for thousands of trees across the city.

While today we fight about development, greenspace, taxes, schools, deer — let us never forget the generosity of one woman. She loved our city, she loved trees, and she did a simple thing that will last for generations. May we all aspire to such a wonderful legacy.

Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.