Joe Zanghi’s beloved cherry trees still bloom in Cherry Hill, so why is he glum?

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Like pale pink snow, the petals are fluttering to the ground beneath the rows of cherry trees along  Chapel  Avenue, and the tireless mastermind behind the annual, two-mile arboreal extravaganza is in a reflective mood.

“I wish the blossoms would last a little longer, but it doesn’t make me sad,” says Joe Zanghi, 81. “It’s natural. You have to accept that.”

Forty five years ago, he began his idealistic quest to create a civic centerpiece for and unite Cherry Hill by showcasing the type of tree that inspired the township’s new name in 1961; he still prunes them every spring by hand.

“The way the world works, this [project] is going to peter out,” continues Zanghi, who has earnest hopes, but no real plan, for how his mission might be perpetuated after he’s gone.

“What’s needed is a whole new generation of responsible leaders,” he says, adding, “What saddens me most is the failure to rally the township.”

To understand what has made Zanghi such a believer in the inspirational if not redemptive power of cherry trees, imagine what Cherry Hill represented when he moved his young family to a split-level in the township’s Windsor Park section from their Southwest Philly rowhouse in 1967.

“It was beautiful,” recalls Betty, his wife of 62 years. “The kids could walk to St. Peter Celestine.”

But in 1972, not far from the parochial school their three children attended, six people died and six more were wounded by a single gunman during a shooting spree in a Kings Highway office building.

An unrelated but also widely publicized murder in the nearby Towers of Windsor Park high-rise apartments sparked yet another fusillade of harsh headlines about South Jersey’s signature suburb.

“The newspapers were being critical of our town, and I said, ‘We’ve got to change that,’” recalls Zanghi, a proud son of Girard College who moved up the ladder from draughtsman to manager at RCA in Camden.

His adopted hometown — then as now divided into distinctive east and west sections — was being portrayed as cold, soul-less and transient, little more than a way station for the ambitious.

“We needed something special to bring the community together,” says Zanghi; like Betty, he  grew up in, and longed for, the close-knit nature of Philly’s rowhouse neighborhoods.

He imagined that a Chapel Avenue transformed into a tree-lined boulevard would boost civic pride and become the setting for events attracting people from across the crazy quilt of post-war housing developments in the township’s 21 square miles.

“I was a nobody,” says Zanghi, noting that support from then-Mayor John Holden, as well as from some Chapel Avenue homeowners,  enabled him  to launch his plan: The busy thoroughfare would be lined with double-blossoming Kwanzan variety cherry trees from Haddonfield Road to Kings Highway.

As the planting began, he and other supporters also organized an annual parade and festival, complete with festive floats, giant balloons, beauty queens, and string bands, that drew thousands of people to the avenue in the 1970s and ’80s. I covered a couple of those parades; they were a big deal back then.

But over the years the widespread civic and consistent political support Zanghi sought would wax and wane and, eventually, fade. The last parade was held in 1992, and in the decades since a handful of local veterans organizations, Boy Scout troops, and Cherry Hill fire department volunteers have helped him plant new trees and replace dead ones along Chapel.

Zanghi pays for many of the trees out of his own pocket and describes himself, accurately, as a “Don Quixote type.”

“Joe kind of adopted us, and we kind of adopted him. Joe gets trees and calls us, and we help him plant them,” says township fire Chief Thomas Kolbe.

“You see people stop and take pictures. We put pictures on our Facebook page this time of year, and people comment that they can’t wait to drive down the avenue,” adds Kolbe.   

Zanghi has long since lost count of how many have been planted or replaced since the first sapling went into the ground at what was then called Cherry Hill Hospital, on the avenue at Cooper Landing Road, in 1973.

He didn’t plant a single tree this spring, but is thrilled that Kennedy Health, now dramatically expanding and renovating the facility,  is featuring cherry trees in the $250 million project’s landscaping.

“We have been very supportive” of Zanghi’s effort, notes Lisa Dutterer, Kennedy’s chief administrative officer. “The avenue is just beautiful this time of year. We are happy to be part of that, and we are committed to maintaining that look.”

On a warm afternoon last week, Joe and Betty went up to the avenue for a photo shoot with an Inquirer photographer. The blossoms had not begun to drop; the trees were crowned with cottony clouds of sunny pink.

“When he first told me what he wanted to do, I told Joe he was out of his mind,” Betty said. “But he told me, ‘It would be so beautiful to have an avenue of cherry trees.’

“Now I can see the beauty of it all. And I’m very proud of him.”

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