Martin Deggeller: Creating environments for future generations


As a boy, Marty Dellegger loved to tramp through the woods of Washington state, surrounded by mature, soaring trees and forest creatures. But fresh out of college, Deggeller went into the same industry as his father and worked for International Paper Company, which cut down trees.

Now, decades later, the retired aerospace engineer has come full circle: He is planting thousands of trees to enhance Palo Alto's and East Palo Alto's urban forests.

"I was in East Palo Alto last weekend, and we planted more than 40 trees," Deggeller said recently.

There were 150 community volunteers, and the community organized a big barbecue. There's something about trees that brings people together and builds relationships, said Deggeller, who has served 14 years on the board of urban tree nonprofit Canopy, four of them as chairman.

On May 15, Deggeller will be honored with an Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award for overseeing and bringing about thousands of local improvements that will last a lifetime. In addition to tree planting, he's built fences, assembled sheds, painted schools and accomplished other projects with the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto. Kiwanis, he said, invests money in projects and leverages it through service projects, doing three each month in the community.

Deggeller graduated from Stanford University with a degree in industrial engineering, and his love for Palo Alto and the Bay Area has continued throughout his life.

"I never wanted to leave. I discovered there was someplace where it didn't rain all the time," he said.

He settled in working for Ford, Loral and Lockheed as an aerospace engineer. After he retired, Deggeller started volunteering with Canopy in 1997 and with Kiwanis in 2002.

He's a big believer in rolling up one's sleeves and getting down to work.

"With our own sweat equity, we can make a bigger impact than with the money alone," Deggeller observed.

The projects also build a sense of community and empowerment, and it's those relationships that he finds fulfilling. For example, Canopy has employed East Palo Alto high school students part-time through its tree-planting projects.

"It has absolutely transformed a lot of these kids. I've worked with dozens of high school kids, and to see the growth of them as individuals is rewarding. There's an enormous personal satisfaction," he said.

Kiwanis recently built fences and safe enclosures at East Palo Alto schools so that young children could play outside and be protected. The teachers and students were thrilled, he recalled.

"The best kind of philanthropy is on a person-to-person basis. It's about interacting with people and seeing their reaction," he said.

Deggeller said he encourages others to volunteer their time. Many people are reluctant to volunteer, believing they don't have necessary skills. But organizations like Canopy provide the tools, training and leadership, so volunteers don't need prior experience, he said.

He is also passing on the love of volunteering to the next generation. Deggeller, who is married with two grown sons, has four grandchildren.

"I have a great picture of two of my grandkids standing next to the olive tree they planted, and when they come, they still want to see that olive tree," he said.

Volunteerism wasn't something Deggeller grew up with, but it is now practiced by the younger generations, something that he said inspires him.

"It goes beyond just getting it on their resume. They are getting a lot of satisfaction from it," he said.

Volunteering has taught him many things, but the greatest lesson is "the need for persistence and to stick with something and get it accomplished," he said. There are often many hurdles to getting city permits and approvals from all parties for any project, but with patience and time, the results are rewarding, he said.

Looking to the future, Deggeller said he would like to see service clubs in town collaborate on more projects.

"The clubs could take on one major project themselves and leverage the money together as well as the physical resources," he said.

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees:

Bill Busse: Hard work and optimism have been hallmarks of architect's life

Judy Koch: Bringing high-quality books to all children

Jerry and Dick Smallwood: Couple sets up scholarship fund, the gift that keeps on giving

Emy and Jim Thurber: Chance, adventure, politics and partnership define the shared life of Los Altos couple

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at

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