In a once-devastated part of Franklin, a small section is returning to nature.

Small black cherry, sugar maple and red oak trees grow in rows dotting more than three city blocks. Larger persimmon and sassafras provide small patches of shade, while existing trees that have been growing for more than 50 years tower over the urban forest. Mulched trails crisscross the property, and benches are set out in intervals throughout the greenspace.

For Jim Crane, the engine behind the forest’s creation, it’s been impressive seeing his vision take root.

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“It’s very rewarding to go by here today and see some of the trees we planted when they were seedlings are now 6 or 8 feet tall,” said Crane, a Franklin resident. “I’ve always thought that if you feel like something is important, come out and do something about it.”

Crane has made a lasting impression on the Franklin community through his service projects. He led the effort to plant 2,000 trees in downtown Franklin and recently helped plant 5,100 more on a floodplain north of the Franklin United Methodist Community.

His membership in the Rotary Club has focused on eliminating polio from the world, as well as helping local groups such as the United Way.

For his work in the community, Crane has been awarded the Spirit Award by the Johnson County Community Foundation. The award is given to deserving individuals who embody philanthropic community spirit.

“The word we use is selfless,” said Gail Richards, president and CEO of the community foundation. “He took it on as a personal mission rejuvenate this area after the flood. He’s a lovely person, and that’s why the nominating committee thought he deserved this award.”

When he isn’t planting trees, he’s carving, shaping and creating with the raw materials they provide.

‘Something for community’

The 83-year-old often is found in the wood shop at the Franklin United Methodist Community. Throughout the year, he and fellow woodworkers make trains, airplanes and other toys that are sold to benefit the community’s benevolence fund.

In his home office, he has examples of his handiwork — model helicopters, curio boxes, trivets and jewelry boxes. He’s making progress on a model of a 1932 Auburn sports roadster that he hopes to finish soon.

“It gives me something to do during the day, out of my wife’s hair,” he said.

For much of his life, Crane spent his career in sales, starting as a sales trainee for Standard Oil Co. By the time he retired in 1990, he was vice president of sales and marketing for Concord Computing Corp.

“I had a good life and was successful as a salesman,” he said. “When I retired, I decided it was time to do something for the community.”

While living in Brown County at the time, he was elected and served one term as a county commissioner.

Crane’s first wife, Martha, died in 1995, and after remarrying the following year, he and his new wife, Loretta, moved to the Franklin United Methodist Community in 1999.

“I had lived in Franklin before, and there are a lot of opportunities for people who would like to do something to do so for the benefit of the community,” he said.

Crane has been a member of the Rotary Club for much of his life. He helped establish the club in Brown County and belonged to chapters while living in Evansville; Kokomo; Hartford, Connecticut; and now Franklin.

For the past 23 years, he has recorded perfect attendance at club meetings.

Personal connections

He said his dedication to the club stems from all of the Rotary Club community efforts, such as working with Habitat for Humanity of Johnson County and the local Boys & Girls Club.

But it’s their efforts to eradicate polio that have special meaning to him. Crane survived the debilitating disease as a child, as did his sister.

“It’s very close to being extinct; and being a survivor, I want to see it gone,” he said.

His involvement in the urban forest project came about through Rotary Club. Franklin planning department officials had come to a club meeting to discuss the damaged properties the city bought following the 2008 flood and to take suggestions of what to do with the property.

Crane started thinking about what could be done with the land that would keep costs at a minimum but still benefit the majority of the community.

His thoughts turned to his oldest son, John, who had died two years earlier.

“He was an outdoorsman, and I thought he would appreciate something like the woods,” he said.

Crane worked to get support for the project from all over the community. He used county institutions such as the David R. Webb veneer mill in Edinburgh, Foley Hardwoods in Bargersville and Marc Adams School of Woodworking to illustrate the importance of trees to the county.

The Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association also was contacted to help plant the trees. The forestry department at Purdue University provided assistance in how to lay out the forest and what species to set up. Franklin College also provided resources.

Crane presented his idea to the Franklin City Council and board of works. The mayor at the time, Fred Paris, and the man who would defeat him later that year in the mayoral election, Joe McGuinness, both wanted to pursue it.

“I just tried to inundate the powers-that-be with people support from what I thought was a project that would benefit every citizen in the county, particularly Franklin,” Crane said. “I wanted to make it a community thing, not a personal thing on my behalf.”

On to the next project

To get the project started, Crane led a drive to raise $30,000. The Johnson County Community Foundation helped manage the funds.

“I was able to get input to his dedication to the park, raising money to plant all of those trees,” Richards said. “Jim came in and sat down with all of the drawings to show where the plantings would be and where the paths would be.”

Volunteers offered their time to plant the saplings, and Franklin parks employees helped bore holes and maintained the area.

“A lot of people had good ideas of what to do with that land, but it would have cost a lot of money to do it,” Crane said. “To date, the city has been out no expense in the project, except the labor time of the parks department.”

Now, three years into the project, the urban forest is well established. Crane has recruited a team of supporters to carry on the project, acknowledging that he’s getting older and it’s time to pass on responsibility to someone else.

His attention has transitioned to another forestry issue, this time in the Franklin United Methodist Community. Hurricane Creek flows the grassy flatlands on the north part of the community’s property, and because it floods, the land is unusable for construction.

Instead of having to mow that area all summer long, Crane persuaded community officials to plant more than 5,000 trees in that section.

“Those trees are beginning to get bigger than the grass now, so one of these days, there will be a nice forest there,” he said.

Crane was informed that he would be receiving the Spirit Award the day before the annual meeting. While honored to receive it, he was quick to point out that none of his projects would have succeeded without many supporters.

During the award presentation, he balked at coming up on stage to receive it. To him, the honor belonged to everyone who had helped the project come to fruition.

Fittingly, the award will come with an honorary tree to be planted in the existing urban forest. Crane joked that it should be some kind of a nut tree.

But it is instead going to be a strong, sturdy oak, Richards said.

The Crane File

Who: Jim Crane

Age: 83

Home: Franklin

Wife: Loretta

Education: University High School in Bloomington (1949); bachelor’s degree in business from Indiana University (1953)

Career: Worked in sales for more than 30 years, retiring as vice president of sales and marketing for Concord Computing Corp. in 1990.

Memberships: Franklin Rotary Club, charter member and past president of Brown County Rotary Club, and Rotary Club member in Evansville, Kokomo and  Hartford, Connecticut.

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.