Tree reminds father ‘she’s still with me’

Photo by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
The Christmas tree outside the Dubois County Courthouse on display on Thursday. The tree was donated by Leo Eckerle of Jasper, who planted the tree 46 years ago. "That was my daughter’s Christmas tree many years ago," Eckerle said. "She didn’t want to cut the tree, so I dug it out and put it in a bucket, and she used it for her Christmas tree. And then I took it out in the yard and planted it. And it grew since then.”


JASPER — What would she think?

When Leo Eckerle tilts back his head to look at the 32-foot-tall pine on the Courthouse Square in Jasper, he wonders. To many, the towering community Christmas tree is a symbol of love, hope and togetherness.

It reminds Leo, 90, of the first time he held his adopted baby daughter, Sheila. How when she was older, she’d ride in a farm wagon while he circled around the lawn on his riding mower. How for more than two decades, she selflessly counseled people through the hardest times of their lives, rarely charging them for her services.

It reminds him of how she died in his arms at just 44 years old. And how as he told her he loved her and didn’t want to lose her, she smiled and told him that everything would be OK.

That giant tree once stood inside Sheila’s living room. What would she think if she could see it now, illuminating the place she cared for so dearly?

“I’ve drove around that Square, I don’t know how many times already,” Leo said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The family pulled the tree from a French Lick forest in 1973. Back then, it was about 5 feet tall. They didn’t chop it down — Sheila insisted that they dig it from the ground and put it in a bucket so it could be replanted after the holiday season. It was the only live Christmas tree she ever had in her home.

It later took root in her front yard, where it grew, and grew, and grew for 46 years before city employees took it down and hauled it away late last month.

Leo chose to donate it because he didn’t want it to continue to grow into a power line, requiring the top to be cut and disfiguring the conifer. Nancy Eckerle, executive director of the Jasper Chamber of Commerce, called it “one of the best Christmas trees we have ever had.”

Sheila and her adopted brother, Duane, came into their father’s life after he returned from serving as a U.S. Army infantryman in the Korean War. Overseas for a year and in the trenches for seven months during the coldest time of the year, Leo saw combat that has scarred him to this day.

He thought of his late wife of 62 years, Lora Lou, daily while overseas. He still does.

Leo never shared his war memories with his daughter. It was enough for him to carry that weight. He never wanted her to feel it.

When she was a teenager, Sheila was happy-go-lucky and made everybody laugh. After she got her first car, she would drive around with friends in her free time. Kind and caring, she always had a smile on her face.

She originally wanted to be a nurse, but later switched career paths. From her Jasper home, Sheila operated New Seasons Counseling for 24 years.

Many of her clients never paid her. But she wasn’t in it for the money.

“She never could save enough money that she could even buy her own automobile,” Leo remembered. “I said, ‘Sheila, you just can’t do that. How are you going to live when you get older?’”

She told him that she wanted to counsel others to help them. And if she could just save one, it would be worth it.

Sheila died from breast cancer after having the disease for four years. She was a devout Christian. She believed in God’s will. She didn’t want to die, but she understood that if God wanted her to go, she would.

“She never complained,” Leo said. “Never.”

Even though his daughter is not with him today, Leo feels close to her when he stands by that Christmas tree and its bright lights and red ribbons. Just like Sheila, the tree shines.

“I don’t know how to put it in words,” Leo said. “But she’s still with me.”

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