New Life for the Old Willow

Although it has long been commemorated with a campus historical marker, many modern Penn Staters do not know the story of Old Willow, the University’s oldest tradition. Two recent graduates, Brenden Dooley and Jordan Harris, hope that will soon change. The Nittany Valley Society happily presents a guest column from Jordan about Old Willow and the efforts to preserve and promote this special link to our past as a living treasury for our future.

By Jordan Harris, July 2014

The duty of summarizing the history of Penn State’s Old Willow was done masterfully by Ben Novak in his book “Is Penn State a Real University.” Old Willow, as recorded by Dr. Novak and on the new plaque installed last month to honor it, was brought to the Farmers High School of Pennsylvania by Evan Pugh upon his arrival as the school’s first President. As was common association, the tree symbolized a gesture of birth and hope for the newborn institution and was thus treated with necessary reverence by its students. Freshman, as the new plaque remembers, would literally bow before it signifying their appreciation for Penn State’s oldest living tradition.

A combination of bad fortunes destroyed Evan Pugh’s Old Willow. Equally bad fortunes subsequently doomed the original willow’s off-shoot and despite yet another, a third-generation willow, being prominently planted in the shadow of Old Main, the lore and tradition of the once beloved tree faded away. Brenden Dooley and I agreed that the time to recapture the lore and tradition of Old Willow is right now. Dr. Novak’s book brilliantly reminded us of the role that Old Willow played in Penn State’s past. The willow should play an equally central role in Penn State’s future.

Our inaugural step to recovery was to propose that Penn State’s current Old Willow be designated status as a Heritage Tree. The designation is given to individual trees holding “exceptional historical, cultural, and/or aesthetic value” to the university. Along with this status, comes an information plaque in front of the willow and a promise by the university to take all reasonable measures to forever preserve the tree. Thanks to the efforts of many, this step is now complete. The next step, cementing Old Willow’s place in Penn State’s future, is now up to all of us.

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Legend has it, that Pugh trimmed the sapping of Old Willow from the garden of English poet Alexander Pope. In Pope’s poetic interpretation of The Odyssey of Homer, what could be confused as an ode to Old Willow‘s future is included:

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found — Now green in youth, now withering on the ground; Another race the following spring supplies: They fall successive, and successive rise. –Alexander Pope (The Iliad of Homer)

Pope may just as well have been talking about the ever-changing nature of our university. A university exists in a constant state of evolution and rebirth. Each fall a new generation arrives at Penn State with a fresh vision of what “Penn State” is, and what it should become. This fall will be no different in this fact while holding one unique distinction. The class of 2018 will, in possession of its own fresh vision, arrive with the university’s 18th President carrying a fresh new vision of his own. What better time for Old Willow and its meaning to reclaim center stage as an important Penn State symbol? What better time for Penn State freshman to once again bow before it, perhaps literally, but at least in spirit and ask “where will we take our great university?” There will be no better time.

The rest of us are not exempt from these questions, especially now. It is no secret that as a university community we are emerging from the most challenging time in our history, and one of the most difficult situations in the history of higher education. A referendum lies with us to be open and encouraging to new visions and new directions and to embrace a new kind of rebirth. No Penn State tradition is better able to capture that referendum and provide us with hope than Old Willow.

Brenden and I hope, and would certainly prefer, that no one think of us when they see the Old Willow Memorial Plaque, nor suspect that they will. We hope instead that the plaque and the status as a Heritage Tree means that countless generations will be able to look at the Willow remembering what the tree has always stood for and where it can inspire us collectively to go. Old Willow can, and will, inspire us today in our most challenging times, to continue the progression of our great university. The inspiration that stems from it places the burden squarely with us.