History buffs share memories of Ortt

MARIETTA – Near the Washington County Historical Society grows a towering tree with a quirky distinction. Due to an identification snafu when nominated for the national big tree registry, the tree is possibly the only one in the country to ever bear the champion moniker under two different species.

When first identified and nominated for the registry more than a decade ago, the tree was inadvertently mistaken as the largest White Swamp Oak in the country by late local naturalist Marilyn Ortt.

“A sign was made up, a ceremony was held. I think several of the commissioners were there,” recalled Jim Noe Thursday night as he shared the story with the Marietta Natural History Society – a group Ortt helped found more than 20 years ago.

But when someone from the registry showed up to make it official, it was discovered the tree was not the largest White Swamp Oak, but in fact the largest Chinkapin Oak in the country.

The story of the oak tree oversight was one of many to generate great laughter at the group’s monthly meeting, dedicated to the remembrance of Ortt, who passed away May 25 at the age of 78.

Those who knew Ortt well knew that she rarely made mistakes.

Nor did she back down from her causes, often environmental, though much more varied upon closer inspection.

When Elsa Thompson first met Ortt in the mid-1970s, it was through the Friendly Town program, which centered on bringing inner city children to stay with local families for a two-week stays.

“She was a very quiet, unassuming person,” said Thompson.

That did not stop Ortt from touching many lives. In addition to helping found the natural history society, Ortt was instrumental in dozens of local groups, hundreds of causes, and thousands of projects, said her friends.

Marietta resident Jean Nuss, 89, was a recent widow when she moved to the city in 1974. Searching for something to do, she found the Washington County Hiking Club, “which was in essence, Marilyn,” recalled Nuss.

The club helped Nuss grow her local roots, and introduced her to wonderful new activities and places.

Bill Thompson, who along with mother Elsa and family, publishes local magazine Bird Watcher’s Digest, recalled that Ortt was instrumental in some of his earliest birding moments. Taking a group of children to what is now the site of Washington State Community College, Ortt showed them sky dancing woodcocks.

“She said ‘Just wait here.’ We watched it, and it was magical,” recalled Bill.

Janice Hofmann, of Parkersburg, recalled taking her daughter on nature walks with Ortt when the family lived in Marietta in the mid-1990s. The walks, aided my Ortt’s voluminous naturalist knowledge, spurred a love of nature in not only Janice, but her daughter Casey Hofmann, now 25.

“Marilyn would follow the group. She was like a little Google. I bet you she’s faster than Google,” said Janice, 63.