A man of many talents
by Keith Morrill
Aaron Sterling followed his heart in 2007 when he left his job of 34 years to launch Aaron’s Tree Service in Colchester. When he’s not felling trees he subcontracts with local builders and helps friends and neighbors with projects.
In 2007, Aaron Sterling traded the comfort of an office job and the possibility of climbing a company ladder for a field job and the opportunity to climb trees. The move wasn’t an attempt to relive some childhood fantasy; rather it was a professional move to launch his own business — Aaron’s Tree Service. Sterling now spends his days keeping people, power lines, and properties throughout Colchester and Essex safe from dead trees and pesky branches.
Sterling’s business is rooted in his teenage years, when he and his dad and brothers often scouted for and chopped down trees for firewood. When he graduated from Burlington High School’s technical center in ’73 with high honors in the carpentry program, Sterling and two of his four brothers continued to employ their skills chopping down trees, both for firewood and to give people a hand. But it would take him more than 30 years to launch his own business.
After graduating, he went to work for Hazelett Strip-Casting Corp., a Colchester company that designs and sells metal casting and foundry equipment, and he spent the next 34 years shifting among the company’s various departments. He started out in shipping and receiving, moved on to customer service after 15 years, and 10 years later tried his hand in engineering, where he essentially reviewed, cataloged, and organized schematics and technical drawings.
Around the same time that he joined Hazelett, Sterling met his wife-to-be, Sue Basiliere. Sterling was an avid bowler at St. Mark’s bowling alley in Burlington, which Sue’s sisters also frequented. Her sisters persuaded her to go, and there she met Sterling. The two bowled together, and it wasn’t long before they started dating. They married in ’76 and divorced in ’85, but Sterling says their relationship never really ended. They moved back in together in ’88, and remarried in 2006.
Not long after their remarriage, Sterling decided to leave his job at Hazelett and launch Aaron’s Tree Service. The decision wasn’t easy, he says. He enjoyed the people and it was difficult to say goodbye to the company. “It was like a big family.” But he wanted to change careers and do something that would get him outside more.
He has long been an outdoor enthusiast and an avid hunter and fisherman. In the winter, Sterling likes to strike out across the ice from his home near Malletts Bay in Colchester on his four-wheelers and fish through the frozen waters of Lake Champlain. In the fall, he tries to get away with friends for a week of hunting — sometimes for whitetail, sometimes for moose. The sport has taken him to Newfoundland, Quebec, New Hampshire, Maine, and even Iowa in search of game.
Sterling’s years of experience had prepared him well, which is perhaps why he has such a clean safety record. While the work seems dangerous, he has avoided injury other than the occasional scrape or bruise.
“Anything could be dangerous,” he says, speaking of the risk inherent in his work. “I’ve been lucky so far.” Safety comes partly from using the right approach for the job. He often scales trees he’s working on using tree-climbing spikes and rope, or if he’s working on a dead tree or near power lines he employs a lift. Although, he says with a grin, these days he’s been using the lift more and the spikes less as he grows lazier.
There’s more to Aaron’s Tree Service than the name suggests. Sterling makes his living through diverse means. “I do a lot to keep busy and make money,” Sterling says, “to try and pay the bills.” Under the aegis of Aaron’s Tree Service, he also mows lawns, trims hedges, and cleans gutters. Most of the work he does is for homeowners, though he does some work for office buildings and companies such as Hazelett, where he still spends about four weeks a year trimming all the hedges on the factory grounds. And he still keeps in touch with Hazelett employees.
Jeff Lefebvre, who worked with Sterling at Hazelett, has remained close with Sterling — they are now neighbors. “He’s just a nice guy,” says Lefebvre, recounting the number of times Sterling has helped him, particularly the time Sterling helped to build and install some docks on the bay. “He’s a good person to get ahold of when you need something challenging done. He just dedicates himself to the job. If it required running in the water with your shoes on for that day in that moment, he’d get in the water and do it.”
Sterling also plies his trade as a carpenter, occasionally subcontracting for local builders. He spent last winter helping to build a house on Colchester Point, and at press time, was working on a roof. Moonlighting has been a way of life for Sterling for most of adulthood, a way to keep busy and bring in extra money while working a full-time job.
Despite the full schedule, Sterling still likes to make time for community. He’s a member of the Colchester chapters of the American Legion (his father served in the Korean War, allowing Sterling to join) and the Elks Club. If he’s not working, he is often involved with one of those clubs, or giving somebody a hand with one project or another. He speaks casually about assisting those in need, but those who know him say that he stands out as a man who is willing to help anyone, anywhere, any time.
Gary Benway, the owner of Benway Construction in Colchester, has known him since rooming with one of Sterling’s brothers years ago. These days, Benway frequently employs Sterling as a subcontractor, and from time to time they go hunting in Bakersfield. Aside from praising Sterling’s work ethic, Benway tells of the time that Sterling showed up to help him move, though Benway hadn’t even thought to ask.
“He just showed up and pitched right in,” says Benway. It’s the sort of good-natured person that makes Sterling who he is. “Anyone who knows Aaron will speak very highly of him. If you just mention you’re going to be doing something and if he’s free, he’ll be there to help.”
Sterling doesn’t seem entirely comfortable being at rest for long, which might explain why he has insisted that Aaron’s Tree Service stay a one-man operation. Doing so allows him to carve out a living by just focusing on the work and without having to devote time to what he says are the less savory aspects of doing business, like human resources and advertising. Sterling says he is insured through his wife’s employer, Secure Financial Services in Colchester, and, with the exception of a regular Elks Club flyer that he puts out, he relies on word-of-mouth and the contacts he makes as a subcontractor to keep his schedule full. “I keep it small and do what I can myself,” says Sterling.
Besides, he says, it’s too late in life to start growing the business. Though he has no intention of ever retiring, he’d rather bring attention down to ground level, focusing on the aspects of his business that allow him to set aside his climbing spikes and put his tree-climbing days behind him. •