Penn State History Lessons: Old Willow
Penn State, like most universities, has a very specific set of traditions. From the hiking of Mount Nittany before graduation to eating your very first grilled sticky, there are certain rites of passage that each Penn State student needs to experience during their time in Happy Valley. And while some of these traditions are more, um, extreme than others (I’m looking at you, Mifflin Streak), they create a shared experience between all students. Considering that Penn State has more than 46,000 undergrads, the fact that we all have memories from the same event is pretty incredible.
But not all Penn State traditions are as popular as the Allen Street Gates Christmas Tree Lighting or chanting “We are!” to passing tour groups. No, some of Penn State’s most interesting traditions are far more obscure. Take, for example, this Penn State tradition; it’s one of the university’s oldest. Back in the day, there used to be a particular tree on campus called Old Willow. This tree was more than just a plant, however. Every time a freshman passed by Old Willow, they were required to remove their dinks (twenty-first century translation: caps) and bow to the tree.
Now you may be wondering why you don’t know about this Penn State tradition. After all, freshmen don’t bow down to plants on their way to class nowadays. That’s because the original Old Willow doesn’t stand today. Instead, one of its ancestors lives on campus, just West of Old Main lawn.
Penn State’s Old Willow trees are a rather unique part of the university’s history. By now, three trees have shared the name “Old Willow,” and each one adds to the name’s story and legacy. To begin telling this tale of three trees, we have to go back to the nineteenth century.
According to Penn State’s archives, the Old Willow tree was planted in either 1858 or 1859. Unfortunately, the story of who planted this tree is just as unclear as the year it was planted. Three men claimed to have planted the first Old Willow.
The first is William G. Waring. Professor Waring was the first superintendent of farm and grounds at Penn State. According to a 1966 edition of Penn State Alumni News, Waring was the first to actually landscape the grounds at Penn State. He planted orchards and ornamental plants. One of these plants, some claim, was Old Willow. The second theory is far more humble; it claims that an employee of the Farm School named Lemuel Osman planted Old Willow. According to that same edition of Alumni News, the tree “was an offshoot of the trees that grew at Centre Furnace.”
By far, the most commonly accepted story of Old Willow’s inception starts in England. There, the university’s first president, Evan Pugh, visited the home of English poet Alexander Pope during a six-year trip to Europe. Old Willow, the story claims, was an offshoot of one of Pope’s weeping willows in Twickenham. When Pugh brought the tree back to Penn State’s campus, he explained that he wanted to bring “a bit of England to our pioneer campus.” The tree was planted at the main entrance to the college, and Professor Waring looked after it.
As Old Willow grew, it became more than just another tree on Penn State’s campus. It was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful landmarks of the college, and some students found that beauty to be inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that they expressed their love for Old Willow openly, and often in verse. Here’s a poem from 1903 about Old Willow, for example:
“Hail monarch of the campus green
With thy far-reaching shade;
More worthy sovereign ne’er was seen
In wood or forest glade.”
In 1914, an offshoot of Old Willow was cut from the tree under recommendation from the school newspaper The Penn State Farmer. That offshoot grew and grew, until it was actually planted at Penn State as the class gift of 1921. While this “new” Old Willow might seem a little excessive, it actually saved the day. On August 21, 1923, a storm hit Penn State’s campus hard…and Old Willow even harder. The first university president’s tree fell that day, only leaving its young successor behind.
The death of one of Penn State’s first landmarks was difficult for the young institution. Old Willow was a sanctuary for poets, students, groundskeepers, and professors alike. When he heard of Old Willow’s fall, Professor I. Thornton Osmond was distraught. In a letter, he wrote:
“When I first saw it, it was young and vigorous…. When I went to State College in 1879 I was told that Dr. Evan Pugh, the first president, coming from his notable work at Rothamstead, England, brough a scion from a willow tree on the poet Pope’s grounds at Twickenham, which became the beautiful young tree then about 20 years old… If I ever again see, in this world or from the world beyond, State College campus, and without ‘Old Willow,’ it will not look right.”
Luckily, Penn State didn’t have to survive without an Old Willow on campus. The second-generation Old Willow lived far longer than its predecessor. Though it was significantly less revered than the original Old Willow, students still admired its beauty. Just as it did decades earlier, the tree brought out the inner poet in University Park students.
In March of 1966, Sara Craig Kufman published a poem about entitled “The Old Willow.” The poem spoke to how the tree was being forgotten among the university’s ambitious construction projects. The first two stanzas are as follows:
“The old weeping willow has disappeared
In urban’s progressive stride–
The campus landmark on the bend,
Stood sentinel as guide;
Its wide spread branches and welcome shade,
With sunshine’s spill, were deftly sprayed.”
“Students and ‘old grads’ had great respect
For willow’s permanent show”
Was written on the annals page
For all to read and know;
It swayed and spread throughout the years–
Leaving cherished souvenirs.”
Kufman’s words rang true in August of 1976. According to a Penn State press release, the second generation Old Willow was removed from campus. The release stated that the tree was “too dangerous to be allowed to remain standing.”
For decades, Penn State lived without an Old Willow. But that all changed with Penn State President Bryce Jordan. After a group of alumni petitioned the president’s office and the Board of Trustees, a willow sapling was planted next to Old Main. The tree is an actual descendant of Old Willow, so it keeps Penn State’s oldest tradition alive to this day.
Maybe when you’re passing by Old Main on your way to class, you might be able to spot the descendent of Old Willow. After all, a plaque was just installed to commemorate the tree’s history. If you do see the tree that grew out of Penn State’s history, perhaps historian Dr. Edwin Runkle’s words will come to mind, “Let tradition continue to weave kindly strains about the origin of Old Willow.”
If you feel so inclined, you could even bow your head ever so slightly to the tree. You can join in the longest living tradition at Penn State, and join the thousands of past students that tipped their caps to Old Willow. These students didn’t just bow to the beautiful tree, the one that inspired poems and letters — they bowed to the history of the university. They respected the past of Penn State, while they looked to the future. We can do the same today.
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