Unsung Heroes: Teaching students to grow

Having a passion is one thing. Having it bear fruit is another. Joe Sabol has shared his passion for fruit trees with thousands of others, and it’s the community that’s reaping the harvest.

Sabol, 69, is a professor emeritus of the Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Agricultural Education and Communication, where he taught from 1972 to 2002.

For more than 10 years, he and others in the Rare Fruit Growers have educated 50 to 100 students at each of about 25 local schools to graft, plant and care for fruit trees. That pencils out to as many as 25,000 young people who’ve learned how to grow their own food from a tree that not only nourishes the body, but nourishes the atmosphere and the eye.

Sabol puts it more simply, saying, “They get a nice tree in the backyard.”

Sabol’s volunteer efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

“He has everything to give everybody he does it all for the pure joy of it,” said Roxy James, who met Sabol through the California Rare Fruit Growers organization.

“Joe Sabol gives time and energy unstintingly to church, alma mater, ex-students, new students, colleagues, senior groups and those in need of his talents,” wrote Bill Mounts.

His list of accomplishments is extensive:

In 2006, Sabol coordinated the acquisition and shipping of 200 olive tree saplings to Iraq at the request of a soldier serving at Camp Anaconda as a tangible, productive symbol of peace.

He was part of a team that took cuttings from the floss tree removed in 2007 from the front steps of Mission San Luis Obispo that will end up growing into hundreds of new trees. He’ll soon help plant saplings propagated from that tree at United Methodist Church and at San Luis Obispo High School.

Sabol and students have also planted 25 fruit trees at The Laureate School and four citrus trees each at Monarch, Montessori, Sinsheimer and Bishop Peak schools.

Growing up in Southern California, Sabol recalled, “My family weren’t farmers, but always had fruit trees — apricot, peaches, avocado.”

Where does he get the passion for sharing knowledge?

“Teaching is a fun thing to do. I love to teach,’’ he said, adding that it comes naturally to him. “It’s fun when students who grafted trees with me come back to you.”

At one point, Sabol said, about half of all high school agriculture teachers in California had taken classes with him.Now he encourages retirees to volunteer.

“Possibilities are unlimited. There’s lots of opportunity to help with all kinds of projects — a lot with young people, which is very important to me.”

One of his highlights of the year is training students at the Grizzly Academy, a voluntary five-month residential high school program for at-risk youths from across California. Each student ends up with a fruit tree to take home.

“Kids need a fruit tree to get them back on track,” Sabol said. “Oh boy, it’s very satisfying.”

And it’s very satisfying — indeed, essential — to have enthusiastic individuals like today’s unsung hero, Joe Sabol, to help bring our community into full flower.