In the back of the small lunchroom of the Towner Nursery, 95-year-old Helen Carpenter sat in a chair at one of the back tables, hands folded on her lap, chatting quietly with old friends, unaware of the people carrying balloons, flowers, presents and cameras streaming into the room.
Although she slowly took notice of the people and her celebratorily decorated surroundings, it was not until three generations of her family from children to great-grandchildren began filing in that Carpenter realized the party was for her.
"This is overwhelming for me," she said fighting back tears. "That's about all I can say."
Helen Carpenter, left, and nursery manager Jeff Smette shovel dirt onto a Spring Snow flowering crab tree, which produces white flowers in bloom. The tree was planted in honor Carpenter’s 50 years of service to the North Dakota Forest Service.
On an unseasonably cold Arbor Day, Carpenter was honored by the North Dakota Forest Service for 50 years of service at the state nursery in Towner with a celebration and ceremonial tree planting.
"Helen's years of service extends beyond many of our lives in this room," said State Forester Larry Kotchman, who presented Carpenter with a certificate of commendation from Gov. John Hoeven. "The people of North Dakota owe you and your co-workers a debt of gratitude and we plant a tree today, on Arbor Day, to remind us it's the act of planting a tree that counts no matter our age of ability."
Carpenter started working at the nursery part time in 1960.
"I had friends working here so I came to see what it was all about," she said. "I came one day to work and I've stayed ever since. I like the people, that's why I'm here."
With an annual production of 1.2 million conifer seedlings each year, Carpenter has helped grow, weed, thin, grade and transplant tens of thousands of tree seedlings throughout her career, enabling them to make their way from the nursery in Towner to farmsteads, cities and forests across the state.
"I've done about everything here," she said. "But getting (and using) this big equipment now is nice. You don't need the big muscles anymore like you use to."
Although Carpenter handles nearly 30 different species of trees throughout her four-month work schedule, she does play favorites.
"I like the Colorado Blue Spruce," she said. "It has less cones than other trees, which means less mess."
Having spent the last 30 years of her retirement-eligible life at the nursery, Carpenter said she has no plans to change that.
"What would I do? I love it here. As long as I can put in some good labor I will continue to come ... if they let me," she said with a smile.