Dencil Marsh’s wife calls him a billy goat the way he scrambles over leaf-strewn ledges and through deep, dry washes. Somehow, he said, he never loses his footing.
He wanders foot trails through scrubby forest and brush, exploring a patch of land set aside for a project he considers his “holy calling” – the transformation of 28 acres into a garden showcase and urban forest known as the Longview Arboretum and Gardens.
On a sunny afternoon in June, Marsh leaned his 73-year-old frame against a young pine tree to rest and catch his breath.
“I don’t have the strength and stamina I used to,” he said. “I used to think I was a tough little guy.”
Marsh did not have time to feel tired, however, because his calling has taken on a new sense of urgency in recent years. He is dying of cancer.
When the disease was diagnosed four years ago, Marsh said his doctors gave him three years to live. These days, he said he can muster the energy for about two hours of activity every afternoon.
More often than not, he said, those two hours are spent at the arboretum or writing grant requests for funding. His passion for the arboretum has only intensified since he became sick, he added.
“When you just don’t feel like getting up and going, you need that motivation and that kick in the rear,” he said. “You asked me if I felt like taking a walk. I wouldn’t miss this walk for anything.”
Along the trails at the planned arboretum – nestled in a creek’s drainage area between West Cotton Street and Texas 31 and adjacent to the Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center – Marsh walked past natural features brimming with possibilities, from an eroded stream bed to a murky pond stained black by decaying leaves.
“Doesn’t this look like something the Creature from the Black Lagoon would live in?” he said. “We just need to clean this up a little bit, put a water fountain or something out there.”
The property lends itself to a natural amphitheater, walking trails along Grace Creek and other features, he said.
“You’ve got so many possibilities, it’s almost endless,” he added.
Marsh’s zeal for the arboretum can infect the people around him, said Mike Northcutt, a local banker who is vice president of East Texas Gardens, Arboretum and Conservation, the nonprofit group Marsh founded to oversee the project.
“You get caught up in it,” Northcutt said. “He has a real passion for this project, and he feels – we all feel – this is something positive for the community. It’s kind of a revitalization of that part of town.”
Northcutt, the president of Southside Bank’s Longview branch, said he hopes the arboretum is someday part of a complex that includes Maude Cobb, a planned multipurpose arena and a hotel. New work on the arboretum should begin soon, he added.
“Over the next 12 months we’ll begin to see some things happen, if nothing more than clearing the underbrush to begin to see something take place out there,” Northcutt said. “It’s hard for people to buy in until they really see something happen sometimes.”
In 2005, Stephen F. Austin State University Professor Dave Creech designed a concept plan for the arboretum.
“If it got the right amount of funding and energy, it’s got lots and lots of potential,” he said. “It just needs to have a real push.”
Marsh has been lobbying for the arboretum since 2002, after he noticed a section of Grace Creek while driving one day and saw its potential. In the twilight of his life, the retired industrial manager said he hopes the arboretum will outlive him by hundreds of years.
“As far as me personally, I don’t have any visions of grandeur,” Marsh said. “I have no desire for recognition. Let’s just get it started.”
Marsh said it’s possible he will live for several more years, but there is no way of knowing. He and his wife, Narcene, have six grandchildren. He wants them to remember him as a decent, honorable man, and to enjoy the fruit of his end-of-life’s work.
“To me, this is a holy calling,” he said. “If I don’t do everything I can to make it happen, how do you think I’ll explain it when I stand before God? This is what I’ll spend my last day working on.”
Published June 14, 2009, in the Longview News-Journal