The Office of Physical Plant, in conjunction with the Heritage Tree Program, installed an informational plaque last week in front of the Weeping Willow tree just west of Old Main.
The tree is a third-generation descendent of Old Willow, which was one of Penn State’s earliest symbols and greatest traditions. An Alumni Association sign already marks the location of the original Old Willow on the Pattee Mall, but this new sign, which came to fruition thanks to a proposal by recent graduates Brenden Dooley and Jordan Harris, marks a descendent of that tree that most students who roam the campus today probably aren’t aware exists.
In his book “Is Penn State a Real University,” author Ben Novak discusses the origin of Old Willow and its cultural importance to the campus. Here’s an excerpt to better explain how an ordinary tree became something extraordinary:
In the 18th and 19th centuries many new institutions were founded. One of the ways people chose to show their faith in them was by planting a tree at the time of the founding. It was a symbol of faith that the new tree, like the new institution, would outlive its founders. At the time of the American Revolution, for example, Liberty Trees were planted in town squares up and down the land to signify faith in the vigor and permanence of the new nation.
Penn State also had a tree that symbolized the faith of her founders. When Dr. Evan Pugh was invited to become Penn State’s first president, he was still living in England conducting research. Once on a visit to the estate of the poet Alexander Pope, Dr. Pugh took a cutting from one of the willows at Pope’s villa at Twickenham. He remembered this cutting as he was packing to leave for his new post at Penn State, and decided he would bring this scion with him as his special tree to plant on the campus of the new college. It was also said that he wished to transplant “a bit of England on our pioneer campus.”
When he brought his tree and his idea to William G. Waring, former principal of the Bellefonte Academy and Penn State’s newly-appointed first superintendent of grounds, there was instant enthusiasm. Dr. Pugh and Dr. Waring scouted the area to pick the most suitable spot for the tree. They chose to plant it at the main entrance to the college. At that time Allen Street ran through campus, and the Mall was a fenced driveway. The entrance to the college was at a point where a path veered over to Old Main. President Pugh’s willow was planted beside the gate and stile. A sidewalk still veers off from the Mall at that point.
The Old Willow at the gate was well deserving of the faith that had been placed in it. It grew to be a magnificent tree. Dr. Runkle, the College Librarian, wrote of it, “no one who saw it and loved it in its prime will ever forget its beauty and majesty.” It became the focal point of the campus.
The gate where it was located was the place of many fondly remembered comings and goings, and many a campus meeting was held under its branches. As a result, it became one of the best remembered symbols of early Penn State.
This new plaque summarizes that history. It reads:
For decades, freshmen bowed to Old Willow as Penn State’s oldest living tradition. Legend claims that when Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh, returned from a six-year sojourn in Europe, he brought back an off-shoot of a willow from the famous garden and grotto of English poet Alexander Pope. This sapling was planted on the Allen Street Mall, near Sackett Building, by Professor William Waring in 1859. Waring was the first superintendent of farms and grounds and was charged with the layout of roads, buildings, orchards, and landscaping. After wind felled the tree in 1923, an off-shoot of this tree grew until the late 1970s, when this third-generation tree was planted.
Other descendants of Old Willow exist, including one at the Arboretum and others at the homes of former trustees Anne Riley and George Henning. Most recently, an endowment that would have supported the planting of a fourth-generation willow was outvoted in the 2014 senior class gift selection. Kudos to Dooley, Harris, and OPP for honoring an important tradition that has been forgotten over the years.