Charlie Starbuck, known for his astounding record of volunteer service to San Francisco’s urban forest, died at age 84 on Sunday, September 5 at a Kaiser hospital.
Charlie participated in most of the community tree planting events organized by Friends of the Urban Forest since we were founded in 1981. We estimate that he planted about 8,500 street trees in San Francisco as a member or leader of volunteer planting crews. Since 2002 he had also been a volunteer Presidio Park Steward, weeding out invasive plants and restoring the park’s natural habitat.
The tall, thin, smiling man in the green beret was much loved by the volunteers and staff who worked with him. Though he was modest, he inspired many.
In 2011, San Francisco Public Works made Charlie the honoree of its annual Arbor Day planting of a “signature tree” for someone who strengthened their community through public service, leadership, and volunteerism. The city planted a cork oak (Quercus suber) in the Geary Boulevard median, which Charlie named “Buffy” after the city’s Bureau of Urban Forestry. Mayor Edwin M. Lee presented Charlie with a certificate of honor after the tree was planted.
In 2016, the Points of Light Foundation gave Charlie its Daily Point of Light Award for individuals making a difference.
“Charlie was a great person, as sweet and genuine as can be, cheerful, fun, and funny,” Mike Yarak, urban forestry program manager for Friends of the Urban Forest, said. “I’ll miss the times we spent sipping coffee together in the morning as plantings got started, swapping tree planting war stories, and checking in on old trees he had planted throughout the neighborhoods.”
Charlie Starbuck was born in 1937 in New York, and moved to Philadelphia. He served in the U.S. Air Force for four years after college, then went to Penn State, where he earned a Master’s Degree in Accounting. After a stint at Arthur Andersen LLP, he got a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
According to his brother, John, Charlie was likely inspired to move to San Francisco in the 1960s by his older sister, Ann, who had moved to the city and loved it. Charlie loved it too, except for one thing.
“I moved from Pennsylvania to San Francisco in the late sixties, and I was here a week and I said ‘something is missing in this city,'” Charlie told radio journalist David Freudberg in 2012. “It was a real lack of street trees.”
After Charlie’s car was “keyed” twice, he sold it and never owned one again. Other than two years in Vermont, where he followed a woman who wished to start a bed and breakfast, he spent the rest of his life in San Francisco, working as a tax attorney.
Charlie, who was known as “Skip” by many, developed an intimate knowledge of San Francisco’s hidden byways. According to his brother John, Charlie was an excellent tour guide; you could walk with Charlie and he’d open a gate to an unmarked public path. Charlie was also a regular Sunday dinner guest of John and his wife Shirley when they lived in the city from 1990 to 1994.
Charlie’s volunteer work began when he joined an anti-high-rise group that wished to stop the construction of the Transamerica building. In 1976, Mayor George Moscone appointed Charlie to the San Francisco Planning Commission, where he served until 1981. That year, when he heard about a new organization called Friends of the Urban Forest, he saw a chance to increase the number of trees in the city he loved, and he commenced to do so — arguably more than any other individual since John McLaren, the longtime superintendent of Golden Gate Park.
Charlie often said he loved seeing neighbors meet for the first time at a tree planting, and he enjoyed the grateful comments of passers-by. But most of all he loved watching the growth of the trees he planted, and seeing how they transformed neighborhoods. He considered them friends.
“I’m a long-term bachelor and I often regret not having somebody to live on after I die,” he told Freudberg. “But now I have this new friend that I can meet on almost every street in the city, at least in every neighborhood, that will outlive me and will be smiling at me forever.”
Charlie was predeceased by an older sister and younger brother. He is survived by his brother John, sister Ann, eight nieces, and one nephew. He was cremated by the Neptune Society of Northern California. Due to pandemic safety considerations, no memorial service is planned.