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Planting seeds, literally and spiritually

A 14-year-old boy painstakingly cuts out and sews a hand-dyed Santa suit made of borrowed sheets and cotton rolls from the infirmary at St. John's Orphanage in Buffalo, N.Y. It's 1944, and the orphanage is full of children needing some cheer and Christmas magic.

The boy, mature for his years, slips out to buy material for a beard and gum spirits to hold it on, secretly anticipating the joy on the faces of the little ones. This is to be one of the most treasured memories of their childhood and the legacy of the boy.

Years go by, and into manhood, he anonymously continues the tradition each year, even after he marries, has children and eventually grandchildren of his own, and after his own hair turns white.

There is something uniquely different about this Santa, who now appears at Merrifield Garden Center, that talks about baby Jesus on bended knee before the crèche, and who hands out more than 2,000 Nativity holy cards with handwritten messages on the back, with sayings such as, "Do kind deeds for others and be remembered as a kind person," or "Set goals and ask God to guide you through."

John Buckreis has spent his lifetime giving in the spirit of St. Nicholas. As a 39-year member of St. Michael Parish in Annandale, a walk around the grounds illustrates his love for his church. The rosary-shaped Marian garden he designed frames an Italian Madonna purchased by the late Msgr. Thomas P. Scannell, founding pastor. Stations of the Cross line the walkway behind the church next to the garden, also the creation of Buckreis, assisted by Boy Scouts from the parish.

Countless trees grace the landscape that have been planted by this talented horticulturist, now grown mighty and magnificent, marking Buckreis's years of quiet service. He lives right down the street and who serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at daily Mass.

His interest in trees began as a boy with pictures of nature decorating the walls of his room.

"My own kids had pictures of rock stars on their walls," he laughs. "My room was full of pictures of bugs and plants. They were my anchors, never changing. Children need anchors, someone that's always there. My anchor was plants."

The boy from St. John's Orphanage grew to love deeply rooted trees and plants. They were constants for him when life circumstances changed, such as moving to another foster home. This love for plants blossomed into a successful career as he pursued horticulture at New York State University, and began working in the nursery wholesale business after marrying his hometown sweetheart.

In 1969, Buckreis and his wife Ann moved to Northern Virginia with their six children after he took a job as a manufacturer's representative for Burr Nurseries. In the late 1970s, and three children later, he went to work at Merrifield Garden Center where he became known as "Dr. John," the plant expert, who enjoyed answering questions from the public.

He decided the best way to teach people about plants would be through television where the greatest audience could be reached.

"I told Bob Warhurst, the owner of Merrifield Gardener Center, that we ought to do television to train the public," said Buckreis. "He said, 'Don't you have to go to school for that?' He told me to give it a try."

Buckreis approached the television station with his idea and received a laugh from the station manager, who, in the end, granted him a "reading" to audition. The reading resulted in approval of three shows, which led to 10 shows called "Gardening News and Views with Dr. John." The program eventually received a regular schedule and still airs on Cox Cable Channel 10 and Arlington Independent Media Channels 38 and 69. The show was awarded first place in the Hometown Video Festival in 2005 and first place in the 27th Annual Telly Awards in 2006.

Buckreis' television career headed in a different direction following a weekend at Loyola Retreat House a few years ago.

"An old Irish priest giving the annual St. Michael's men's retreat asked, 'What have you done for your Church? What have you done for Jesus Christ on this earth?'" Buckreis said. He had time to reflect on the question before being pinned down individually by the priest.

"He asked me what I had been spending my time doing. I said 'plants,'" Buckreis recalled. "The priest said, 'Big deal! What can you do for God?'" He thought of doing a Catholic television show to inspire people from the good that others are doing.

He received permission from Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde to start "Catholic Life." His first show featured local Catholic Boy Scouts. Another show highlighted an African missionary. The line up continued, adding up to more than 100 shows with audiences of more than 150,000. He is always looking for guests and sponsors and welcomes suggestions by mail.

Few know that this "idea" man is also a poet and writer, finding inspiration in all that is around him. Buckreis is the author of Poetry/Prayers and Pleasure, a collection of reflective pieces. He also wrote a book and screenplay about Santa Claus entitled Santa's Notebook, and the book, Dr. John's Garden Notes, which includes "how to" instructions for more than 200 different plants. He is currently seeking a publisher for his books.

Among the prayers he has authored, one of Buckreis' favorites is "Gifts from the Holy Spirit," which he recites daily. In part, the prayer reads, "Dear Jesus, Lord and Holy Spirit, please grant me the gift of Your grace, for without Your grace, I can do nothing worthwhile. Please give me the gift of wisdom - not to solve the problems of the world, but to solve the problems of the moment. Please give me the gift of desire - for without desire, little can be done. Please give me the gift of strength - for with strength, much can be done. Please give me the opportunity, and I will take these gifts to serve You, Your Church and mankind every day of my life."


Recommendations for guests for "Catholic Life"' may be mailed to:

John Buckreis

4707 Ravensworth Rd.

Annandale, VA 22003-5549

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2008