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A Hand-Picked Holiday Tradition

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Tom Steets

Whitehaven kids enjoy a tradition of picking grapefruits from Tom Steets' front yard every Sunday before Christmas. (Photo: www.andrewsphoto.com)

Each year, the residents of Whitehaven Street look forward to sharing two significant holiday traditions. Every house wraps their front trees in white lights, creating a winter wonderland in Bellaire. Another tradition that binds the block is spending the Sunday before Christmas picking grapefruit together.

For years, Tom Steets and his 93-year-old dad, Jack, have been inviting their neighbors to help themselves to the delicious citrus hanging from the two grapefruit trees that Tom planted back in 1988.

When Tom, who grew up on Whitehaven, moved back after a short time away, he envisioned a tropical oasis on his parent’s lot. His creation included two Ruby Red grapefruit trees up front, which he fondly dubbed Pride and Joy.

“Joy was the first to yield fruit within two years, and Pride took eight years to get going,” said Tom, who now lives at home with his dad. “The tradition of inviting the neighbors to pick the fruit has further bonded friendships with the neighbors.”

Tom recalls playing on the street with some of the same friends who still come each year to pick his grapefruit. “There were really few trees that I can recall when I was little,” he said.

Looking at Whitehaven today with its canopy of oaks, it’s hard to imagine that it once had very few trees. Edith Hallas, another original resident on Whitehaven, recalls how she and husband, John, had the vision to plant trees for future generations to enjoy.

Jack Steets, Edith Hallas, and Terry Carter

Jack Steets, Edith Hallas, and Terry Carter are three of Whitehaven's original residents. (Photo: www.andrewsphoto.com)

Edith remembers lamenting to John when they moved to the street in 1952, “We need to do something” about the lack of trees. “John, who wanted me to settle down in Houston and not pine for New Jersey where I came from treed streets, bought trees for the property. He bought a lot of trees for our neighbors on the street. They were like sticks when we put them in, and now look at them,” she said with pride.

About 11 years ago, residents Steve and Debra Davison visualized the effect of lighting these majestic trees for the holiday, creating their own Central Park in Bellaire. Some homes had lost their trees in front, but Steve had a solution. Constructing 6-foot high artificial trees made from chicken wire, Steve wrapped their “trunks” with some 300 lights.

The outcome is spectacular, with a uniform three strands per trunk. The block is always up for a party, and along with decorating the trees comes some good ol’ Southern food, like barbecue and twice-baked potatoes. Seventh-grader Eric Martin summed up the holiday spirit when he said, “It’s so awesome to live on my street. Around Christmas at night, all the lights on the street look really cool. That is one of the many traditions I enjoy on Whitehaven.”

Whitehaven Street, then and now

In the early ‘50s, Whitehaven Street was pasture land as part of Westmoreland Farms.

Tom Steets, Kevin Kelleher, Steve Gangelhoff

Tom Steets, Kevin Kelleher, Steve Gangelhoff on Whitehaven circa 1956.

Jack Steets recalls standing on the corner of Alder and Evergreen in 1952. “There was nothing there,” he said. Then I stumbled upon a builder who agreed to build me a house on Whitehaven.” Jack and wife Clare had moved from New Jersey to Houston in 1952, and Jack had a job with Prudential. Little did he know that when he chose Whitehaven Street, he would be part of a remarkable coincidence. Five of the 16 homes that were built on Whitehaven had been commissioned by other Prudential employees, and upon moving in, an instant carpool was born. John Hallas was one such Prudential colleague. John had employed the same builder to build his wife, Edith, and two daughters a home on Whitehaven. The family, John decided, would only need a one-car garage. “Why build a two-car garage?” he said to Edith. “We’ll never own more than one car.”

Though he may not have envisioned a future need for two cars, his vision to create a canopy of trees for future enjoyment was right on.

Debra Davison, now a Bellaire City Councilman, grew up around the block on Evergreen Street, and “had many a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” made in Mrs. Hallas’ kitchen as a playmate of daughter Patti. Debra still feels comfortable in Edith’s kitchen—now, as her next-door neighbor.

On December 5, Jack will celebrate his 94th birthday, and for those who are scrambling to do the math on his birth year, it was the same year that the Titanic sunk. His son, Tom, shares his dad’s birthday, and is celebrating close to 55 years of living on Whitehaven. Tom enjoys watching the young kids pick his grapefruit each December and helping them to create their own childhood memories on Whitehaven.

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