For 9/11 memorial, Michigan businesswoman carves out a lasting legacy with tree markers

By Zlati Meyer Detroit Free Press

Ann Mayle flew to New York City on Monday to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Though she lost no loved ones 11 years ago today, the Rochester Hills entrepreneur has a unique role, a bit part, in the drama that forever changed America.

Near the reflecting pools rimmed with the names of the approximately 3,000 victims from the plane crashes at the World Trade Center and Pentagon and in a field near Shanksville, Pa., stand 225 trees that symbolize life, strength and renewal. Marking each one is a discreet brass tag made by Mayle’s company, A Family Tree.

The 53-year-old Michigander designed tree tags — essentially bracelets that fit around trees, spring-loaded to be able to grow with the limb each tag is cuffed onto — that now dot the swamp white oaks at Ground Zero. The Tree Hugger — or tree-let, as it’s dubbed — means no cutting into and damaging the bark; the 9-inch coil can stretch to 30 inches.

Each tree’s plaque is marked with letters and numbers so memorial staff can keep track of them, according to Ronaldo Vega, the September 11 memorial’s director of design, who stumbled on A Family Tree while doing a Web search.

Mayle, who runs the one-woman company from her basement, views joining the project as an honor.

“I am going to be involved in something bigger than I could imagine,” she said. “I’m part of history. These tree tags will be part of history long after I’m gone. They have 4 million visitors a year. My little Michigan-based product is there with world-class architects and marble flown in from Italy.”

Detroiter Jean Neal, whose sister Margaret Mattic died on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, has been to Ground Zero but hasn’t seen the trees. Still, she acknowledged the tie her — and Mattic’s — home state has to the site.

“If someone from Michigan is able to make a contribution, it’s good,” she said.

The September 11 memorial tree tags — ovals, about 2 inches wide and 4 inches long — are made from the same patinated bronze as the fountains’ parapets, instead of the stainless steel Mayle usually uses in her Chicago production facility.

A Family Tree was born out of tragedy, too. Mayle, who lost four friends in a 1974 car accident in Southfield, was inspired to create the tree markers after reading about a car crash that killed three teenagers on Woodward in the 1990s.

She said words in the paper that day described a “‘Testimony of Love,’ and it was crosses and teddy bears, and I thought, ‘That’s not going to be there more than a week.'”

The first tree tag — a 2-by-6-inch rectangle with smoothed corners that can accommodate four lines of 35 characters — was bought in 2000 by a woman who wanted to mark a tree for her mother in her yard. To date, Mayle, who has one in her yard in memory of her teenage pals, has sold about 10,000. Each costs $49.95, but she declined to say how much she charged for the custom-made Ground Zero markers.

“We’re very, very happy with the product,” Vega said. “We know they’re all in, and we’re still going to plant 191 trees when we finish the plaza. That’s a call we make to Annie. It’s long-term relationship.”

About 40 of the trees already in the memorial grove have sponsors, including 16 by Scotts Miracle-Gro, he added. The cost of each is $100,000.

The Tree Huggers arrived last week and as of Monday afternoon, Vega was still attaching them.

September 11, 2001, rekindled painful memories for Mayle, but she has channeled her grief.

“Every life is precious. When you lose a life, when you leave your home that day and never see that loved one again, that tragedy, that hole is in your heart. For me, it was 1974 and now, 2012,” she said.

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