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Tale Behind ‘Tree Lady’ a Sad One of Unrequited Love

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Wednesday’s column was about a woman who, until being taken away by county social workers in recent weeks, lived for many years under the trees and in the bushes between two office buildings in Newport Beach. The few people I talked to had heard rumors about the woman over the years, but no one was quite sure what her story was, and I suggested that perhaps we never would know. The most prevalent rumor seemed to be that an ex-husband had died in a construction accident in the area and she was “waiting” for him to return.

Since Wednesday, several people called up and said they did know the details. Each caller told basically the same story, and if only to prove that the truth is stranger than fiction, here’s what they said about her:

They said her story can be dated to an incident at least 20 years ago.

She had been working for Continental Insurance in Los Angeles but apparently hadn’t made many friends. One day, either because it was her birthday or just as a friendly gesture, one of her co-workers--a man named Michael Meyers--invited her to lunch.

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Although the callers said Meyers had no romantic interest in her, the woman developed an attraction for him. It was that unrequited and misguided love affair, people say, that set off the sad chain of events.

Anne Martin works for Continental Insurance, which relocated from Los Angeles to the Newport Beach area where the woman has lived for years.

Partly because of the lore that grew up around the woman, a small company file still exists about her activities, Martin said. At one point, Martin said she was thinking of writing some kind of a story about the woman’s sad vigil.

The file suggests that the woman’s obsession with Meyers became so great that she was fired from her job with Continental, Martin said. But that didn’t prevent her from waiting outside the building for Meyers, a pattern that so upset Meyers that he got a court order to keep the woman away.

Continental relocated to 4141 MacArthur Blvd. in Newport Beach, but not even the move to Orange County discouraged the woman, Martin said. Rather, she would take a bus every day to Newport Beach in an apparent attempt to get a glimpse of her estranged friend.

Martin said Continental employees tried to get counseling help for the woman but that after every effort that temporarily removed her from the premises, the woman eventually returned.

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Eventually, the woman set up her makeshift living quarters in the area around Continental. To some workers, she became known as the “Tree Lady,” Martin said. At nights, she would be able to get inside the lobby entrance and sleep in a stairwell and use the bathroom, Martin said.

The most poignant aspect of the woman’s behavior, Martin said, were the notes she left almost daily at the company elevator, usually stuck in the ashtray. Written usually on paper towels and bearing neat but nearly indecipherable tiny printing, the letters spoke of the woman’s affection for Michael Meyers.

The notes were so plentiful that workers would take them home or try to read them, usually without success. Some of the letters remain in the file. Another Continental employee who saw the notes for years said one of them included the words, “I care for you” and “Have faith in my justice.”

Continental workers obviously knew the woman was emotionally troubled but felt their hands were tied because the woman never posed a threat. Seeing her more as a pitiable figure, some still have mental images of her standing in the rain outside the building, holding her umbrella.

Saundra McClain works for a law firm in the Mitsui Manufacturers Bank building that abuts the area staked out by the woman.

“We went out one day about a year and a half ago and started talking to her,” McClain said. “She told us that her parents used to be missionaries and that they used to do missionary work in the Philippines. She said she was staying there because there was a company across the street that used to be up in L.A. and there was a guy who she had a relationship with, and she was just kind of waiting for him to come back.”

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At first, McClain said, the woman was standoffish, but eventually she would eat lunch and talk with some of the office workers who stopped by. The woman seemed lucid and rational about most subjects, except for the missing man in her life.

“I asked her if she would come stay at my house,” McClain said. “It was one Thanksgiving. I ended up bringing her Thanksgiving dinner down there. She just refused to leave that area. She was a sweet lady. To know her you would never know why she would stay homeless. She had good sense about everything else--how she kept track of her money, how she kept up her hygiene, and she was always conscious of how she looks. But I just wish she could get some psychiatric help and come to the reality that what happened is in the past and she needs to move on.”

Perhaps the saddest commentary on the woman’s delusional state is that Meyers was transferred several years ago out of California, either to the Midwest or the East Coast, his former co-workers said. At one point, he returned briefly and walked right past the woman, who didn’t recognize him, the callers said.

Two or three years ago, they said, Meyers died.

As for the woman, no one knows what will happen to her. McClain said the woman has relatives but that she once told her she chose to maintain her vigil.

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