Old Willow and the Heritage Tree Endowment

By Tom Shakely, October 10, 2013

Onward State broke the news that the Senior Class of 2014 Gift Committee has released its three options for seniors to choose from for their class’s permanent visible symbol on Penn State’s campus.

Of the three options, one is called the “Heritage Tree Endowment” and relates to Old Willow, one of Penn State’s earliest symbols and something The Nittany Valley Society popularizes through its book, “Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal.” Here’s how the Senior Class Gift Committee describes the Heritage Tree Endowment:

This gift “will preserve the beauty and unique character of the University Park campus through the creation of an endowment to protect trees that have special historical, cultural or aesthetic value and are designated as Penn State Heritage Trees. The University would recognize the gift by transplanting on to campus a fourth-generation descendant of ‘Old Willow,’ a landmark tree planted soon after Penn State admitted its first class of students in 1859, by Professor of Horticulture William G. Waring. Members of the senior class of 2014 could enjoy watching this tree grow as they return to campus again and again throughout their lives, while the endowment provides permanent funds to protect and nurture the University’s Heritage Trees.”

In “Is Penn State a Real University,” author Ben Novak writes about the origin of Old Willow in the chapter “Old Willow, Monarch of the Campus.” It seems only appropriate to excerpt a bit of that here, to provide even more context for why the Heritage Tree Endowment is such an innovative, sustainable, and yet culturally meaningful concept:

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.

You can read the full chapter and learn the full history of Old Willow by picking up a copy in a print or digital edition.