Saying good-bye to a family who never set out to lead


You might say that, at one point, I became obsessed with flagpoles.

Not any old flagpole, mind you. One in particular next to the Riverdale Monument that had decades of history behind it. And if someone didn’t do something about it soon, the flagpole itself would be history.

Retired teacher and a very good neighbor Rick Feldman spent months, if not years, researching the flagpole at West 239th Street and Riverdale Avenue, and working to convince customers at the Sunday Market at Riverdale Temple to donate money to restore it.

Rick had collected a respectable $500 — but it was going to cost at least five times that to really make this flagpole shine again. And it was going to need more muscle. A lot more muscle.

And that’s when I met Nick and Joelle Lynch for the very first time. I was actually quite familiar with their tree and landscape company, Tree Army. Not because their camouflaged-skinned vehicles were hard to miss on our streets, but because Nick and Joelle happened to be neighbors of mine in Kingsbridge Heights.

Well, sort of. I was living in the Shalom Alecheim apartments off Giles Place, and the Lynches were living in the strip of historic houses behind the complex that lined Cannon Place. I would walk by their vehicles many times, impressed by the military theming.

But Tree Army’s look and feel wasn’t just a gimmick. It was a company founded by veterans that hired veterans — especially those who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There’s just something about using a chainsaw and cutting into wood that is so therapeutic,” Nick said to me during his first visit to that flagpole. “I can’t explain why, but it really makes a difference.”

Yet, during a going away party this past weekend at Blackstone Bar & Grill, Nick admitted his original motivation for co-founding Tree Army was not altruistic at all.

“I started Tree Army to save me,” Nick said. “I didn’t start it to do anything else. “I was having a really bad time in the Army, and I thought my Army career was ending.”

PTSD is very real — especially among the men and women who were willing to sacrifice everything to protect the American freedoms we enjoy. Seven out of every 100 veterans will ultimately suffer from it, according to the National Center for PTSD — and the outcomes are more often tragic than promising.

Nick didn’t want to become a statistic. He and Joelle had a big family.

They had a home. They had friends who loved them, and a community that needed them. And, before long, Tree Army wasn’t just about helping one couple — it was about helping everyone.

“Somewhere along the way,” Nick said, “Tree Army went from saving me to saving other vets.” And once they made that turn, there was nothing stopping Nick and Joelle.
If only that were true. Out of nowhere, Nick lost his best friend. And, understandably, it was devastating.

“My best friend of 40 years,” Nick said. “When he died, my entire life changed. I said I no longer know what I am doing this for. And I can’t call my best friend and talk anymore.”

There’s nothing like going through a loss like that, Nick added — especially when he found himself doing it silently. The pain of all that distracted him from Tree Army, and with its defenses down, tragedy continued to plague the Lynches.

“We were robbed not once, not twice, but three times,” Nick shared. “And I said it was enough. It was enough.”
Tree Army is winding down, and if that weren’t bad enough, Nick and Joelle are packing up their Cannon Place home. They have bought a beautiful house in Puerto Rico and can’t wait to get back to it. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy for any of us.

A day after that going away party, I drove by that flagpole that was the center of my life for months. It’s beautifully restored, with the Stars & Stripes waving proudly at the top. Benches are wrapped around the base — an added touch Nick and Joelle put in, just to make this space even more special.

And it truly breaks my heart. Nick and Joelle may have thought their motives were selfish when they set out on this journey, but it never was. In the years I have known the Lynches, the word “self” is not even in their vocabulary.

In fact, during the few moments I had with Nick while so many wanted to wish him well at Blackstone’s, he didn’t want to talk about himself, but worried about Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Chabad Lubavitch of Riverdale. Rabbi Shemtov erects what has to be one of the largest menorahs in the city at the Monument each Hanukkah season, and Nick makes sure it all happens without a hitch, thanks to his equipment that helps the rabbi light the massive candles, and start the holiday season.

“I have to make sure Rabbi Shemtov can do the menorah again this year,” Nick told me. “I can’t disappoint him. I can’t disappoint the community.”

We may be sad that Nick, Joelle and their family are leaving us, but we’ll never be disappointed in them. If we all have to band together to make sure Hanukkah at the Riverdale Monument moves forward this year, then we’ll do it. But we’ll know all of that remains a local tradition because of everything Nick and Joelle have done.

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said. “He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

MacArthur died in 1964, long before Nick and Joelle were born. But in speaking those words, it’s hard to imagine the general talking about anyone else.

Nick and Joelle were indeed true leaders. And their contributions to making our homes so much better will continue to be felt even when they’re more than a thousand miles away.

And all we can say is … thank you.

The author is executive editor of Herald Community Newspapers, the media group that includes The Riverdale Press

Michael Hinman