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Published March 02, 2013, 11:30 PM

NDSU researcher honors grandson by naming tree for him

‘Sun Beam’ born with form of spina bifida
FARGO - Dale Herman made a career out of finding and developing plants hardy enough to withstand the unforgiving winters here.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO - Dale Herman made a career out of finding and developing plants hardy enough to withstand the unforgiving winters here.

When he met a person hardy enough to flourish despite an unforgiving start to life, he did what came naturally: named a tree for him.

Herman said the Sun Beam Ironwood got its name because of the “delightful, outgoing, friendly personality” exhibited by his grandson, 4-year-old Cameron Winkler, whose ability to befriend everyone he meets has made him a popular kid around Fargo and the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital he frequents.

Cameron was born in 2008 with myelomeningocele, a form of the birth defect spina bifida in which the backbone and spinal canal don’t close. He’s already undergone a dozen brain and spinal surgeries, and the condition left him partially paralyzed below the waist.

Still, Herman said, his grandson is nothing but a “little blessing” to the people around him.

“That’s why I named it Sun Beam, because he just lights up everybody’s life,” he said. “No matter where you take him, a restaurant or any place, he’ll go right up to a 1-year-old or a 100-year-old and just strike up a conversation.”

During an interview, Cameron was eager to discuss his passion for North Dakota State University athletics, halting the reporter mid-question to ask, “Are you a Bison fan?” He said he’s learned a lot about trees from Herman, but he’s skeptical of his grandfather’s glowing review of his personality.

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

Modesty, it seems, is just another one of his attributes.

‘A place for Cameron’s tree’

Kevin Winkler, Cameron’s father, said the spina bifida required a surgery when he was just 2 days old to close up his exposed spinal cord, and he’s had several surgeries since dealing with a shunt that drains excess spinal fluid from the brain.

Cameron’s condition also caused a malformation that pulled his cerebellum partially into his neck, requiring more operations to make room for this part of his brain, and he’ll need surgeries to free up the repaired end of his spinal cord every time he has a growth spurt.

But Winkler said Cameron is an energetic, happy, outgoing kid who resorts to “hopping around like a frog” to get around when not in his wheelchair or behind his walker.

People seem to be drawn to his son, he said, and even nurses and doctors at his hospital “fight” over who gets to take care of the little boy who often repeats his motto of “never give up.”

“He’s got a lot of God-given determination, and he exudes cheerfulness and a charming disposition and a lot of positive energy to everybody that he comes in contact with,” Winkler said.

Winkler said Herman, a former plant sciences professor at NDSU and director of the university’s research arboretum near Absaraka that now bears his name, was “very prolific” in his 40-year career before retiring in 2011. Winkler said it wasn’t unusual to hear that his father-in-law was going to name another one of his new trees or shrubs after someone special.

“But the fact that Cameron and Dale have such a special bond and that something in Dale’s work can include that, that’s really special to us,” he said. “And the fact that everybody else can be a part of that, too, by getting this tree.”

Even the Winklers don’t have a Sun Beam yet. Herman said the ironwood variety was introduced in 2011 to a wholesale producer in Oregon and likely won’t be available to buy for another year or two.

His work in selecting the tree was firmly rooted in science and his desire to increase species diversity of the trees people plant, which can help avoid the widespread loss of trees when new diseases or insects move into the region.

Herman said the variety he chose after examining about 40 different trees stands out for its attractive golden yellow fall color that changes to a coppery hue before the leaves drop in winter.

Choosing a name for this new cultivar was simply a matter of looking to the “little sunbeam” that’s been in his life since 2008.

“I just thought I wanted to honor his personality and the way he is,” he said.

Herman said the tree’s small to medium size – it’s no cottonwood – also makes it a good fit for a modern-day residential lot; lots like the one in north Fargo that the Winklers call home.

“I’ve got a small yard, so of all the trees to pick from, I think we’re going to hold a place for Cameron’s tree,” Winkler said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587