February 26, 2024
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Official Rockefeller Center Christmas tree donated by Binghamton professor

Social work professor reflects on family’s decision to donate

A before and after shot of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, showing the tree in both its original location and lit in the Plaza. A before and after shot of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, showing the tree in both its original location and lit in the Plaza.
A before and after shot of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, showing the tree in both its original location and lit in the Plaza. Image Credit: Tishman Speyer/NBC.

Although the first tenet of her profession is “being of service to others,” Jackie McGinley didn’t imagine that she would put it to use the way she has this holiday season — by donating the 80-foot tall, 43-foot wide, and 12-ton Norway Spruce in her side yard to be the official Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

“It was one of the easiest decisions that we’ve ever made. As a social worker, and a core of my own family’s identity, is this idea of service,” McGinley said. “We really try to think about how we can be of service to other people, whether that’s our friends and family, or our neighbors — and now millions of people that we hopefully will get to know or can just impact in a small way.”

McGinley is a licensed social worker, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and the program director for Binghamton University’s new online Master of Social Work (MSW) program. McGinley earned her master’s degree at Rutgers University and her doctorate from the University at Buffalo. Prior to joining the University faculty, she had four years of experience as a social work educator, teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Along with her family’s support, McGinley worked with Erik Pauze, the head gardener of the Rockefeller Center, who was the first to spot the tree during a drive-by for another evergreen in the area that had been nominated for the coveted position. Every few weeks from June to September, Pauze would stop by the property to check on the tree, and by October, the McGinleys knew their tree had been selected.

Once the tree was removed from their property, the news spread locally thanks to an interview on the Today Show. McGinley and her family were stunned at the magnitude of joy and pride that people expressed after hearing their story, though they anticipated and imagined strong reactions based on their experiences in the area and with the University.

“I really love this institution. We’re striving to offer a rigorous educational experience, in a way that also creates community for students. And I’ve seen that in my time on the campus but also as a member of the greater Broome County area, there’s a real commitment to supporting one another and caring for one another, in our community that I really appreciate,” McGinley said. “I feel great pride in what I have the privilege of getting to do, and where I get to do it each day. And the idea that this very strange, unexpected turn of events would offer a chance to also highlight this place that I so deeply care for was very exciting.”

In addition to her excitement to share the spotlight with the University, McGinley considers all the others who inspired the decision to donate the tree.

McGinley and her family have experienced a number of losses, “which we still grieve but also which have had a profound impact on shaping who we are and what we do,” she added. In addition to others who have passed in their family, McGinley and her family dedicated the tree to her mother-in-law, who passed just two months after they relocated to the area to be near her, yet who made an indelible impact on their lives.

“It was such a gift to my husband, to me and to our children to have her as a huge part of our lives,” McGinley said. “She taught me that this is all so precious. These memories that we get to make, these opportunities that we have — they are finite. It doesn’t go on forever. We need to think about how we create those moments, how to embrace both the hard things in our life and also these incredible joys that we get to experience — like having a chance to donate your tree to Rockefeller Center.”

McGinley’s career path also played a heavy role in the decision.

Her mentor, end-of-life scholar Deborah Waldrop, was exploring the idea of indelible memories during a final project they worked on together, which later inspired some of her own work in the field. Over her 20-plus years in the profession, she supported a number of aging, ill and/or end-of-life patients, and has recently been researching this type of care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). One of her missions as a scholar is to lead research that improves care for people with disabilities as they approach this point in their lives.

McGinley hopes that people visiting from across the world will have a chance to create a treasured moment they can carry with them for a whole lifetime this holiday season.

“I can tell you both personally and professionally, after we’ve lost people, it’s the memories that remain. That’s how our love and our care persevere for individuals,” McGinley said. “So much memory is made with holiday traditions, or in shared space. That’s how we stay connected to people.”

Meanwhile, McGinley and her family will create some of their own memories while maintaining their traditions: a Christmas dinner with a colleague and dear friend whom they have shared the holiday with for several years, a trip to the light show at Otsiningo Park or Animal Adventure Park and perhaps even to an evergreen farm for a miniature living-room-version of the Rockefeller tree.

On too of having seen the tree staked and raised — the reverse of what had happened in their yard just a few days previously —the family also visited the city for the lighting ceremony, which took place at 30 Rockefeller Plaza on Nov. 29.

Yet McGinley insists that the tree is no longer her own to see off.

“Something happened when the tree arrived at Rockefeller Center. It’s not our tree anymore. It’s your tree. It’s their tree. It’s the world’s tree. This is not about us. It’s really about all the meanings that people apply,” McGinley said. “I’ve heard from alumni, colleagues, current students and members of the community, how meaningful it is to them that the tree came from the University’s backyard, and the pride that they take in that. They feel connected to it; they’ve created memories themselves. And that experience has been really wonderful.”