Honor for and remembrance of Old Willow is perpetuated by the Nittany Valley Society, sharing stories and memories of this beautiful tree and symbol of both Penn State’s past and our hope for the future. As Penn State’s first and most historic symbol, it forever holds a special place of significance in the life of this community, and particularly in understanding student life and traditions of Penn State’s first century and more.
Professor I. Thornton Osmond’s 1923 Letter
Old Willow, Monarch of the Campus
Ben Novak’s “Old Willow, Monarch of the Campus”, a mid-1990s remembrance of Old Willow as Penn State’s first symbol and oldest student tradition, sparked a remembrance of Old Willow and the recognition of Old Willow’s fourth generation near Old Main on Pattee Mall:
Katey and Ross Lehman’s 1966 Remembrance
Many persons pass by the “Old Willow” on the mall of the University campus without giving it a second glance… yet this tree is a signal of Penn State spirit to many alumni.
This was illustrated by Penn State’s Class of 1921, which held its 45th reunion here last weekend and also paid tribute to the “Old Willow” at its banquet. The class distributed some literature about the history of the tree, and here’s a good opportunity to acquaint you with some of the background.
The “Old Willow” was planted in 1858 or 1859, but there are various claims as to who planted it.
One story reports that Professor William G. Waring, the first superintendent of farm and grounds, was responsible. He “laid out the grounds, planted the first orchards, gave the first landscape touches of ornament and plan to the campus.”
Another claim is that Lemuel Osman, a young man who worked for the Farm School in the building of the west wing of Old Main, planted it. According to this version, “Old Willow” was an offshoot of trees that grew at Centre Furnace, and Mr. Osman “brought a sprig that transversed the main road.” Some witnesses vouched for its authenticity.
One more interesting story—and as plausible—is that the “Old Willow” was an off-shoot from one at the villa of the poet, Pope, at Twickenham. “It is affirmed that it was brought over by Dr. Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, when he returned from a six-year sojourn on the Continent and in England.” Dr. Pugh did bring materials for the Farmers’ High School, and it seems natural that he should wish to transplant a “bit of England” on our pioneer campus… and Professor Waring, quite naturally, could have planted and nurtured the infant tree.
In support of this tradition, Professor I. Thornton Osmond, who retired and moved to Carlisle, wrote a letter to Dr. John Martin Thomas, president of the University in 1923. He wrote, in part: “When I went to State College in 1879, I was told that Dr. Evan Pugh brought 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. I am quite sure that Prof. C. Alfred Smith was one of those who told me this. He graduated in the first class, and was Dr. Pugh’s assistant for a time.”
The “Old Willow,” by this time, had become a thing of beauty to all on campus. As the historian, Dr. Erwin W. Runkle, said, “Let tradition continue to weave kindly strains about the origin of ‘Old Willow,’ no one who saw it and loved it in its prime will ever forget its beauty and majesty.”
On August 21, 1923, a storm hit the campus and “Old Willow” fell. Fortunately, in anticipation of such an event, a shoot from the tree had been planted beside “Old Willow”… and on Alumni Day, June 12, 1921, this new “Old Willow” had been dedicated.
“Old Willow” has been the recipient of boundless sentiment, campus rites, of many poems of praise, and of endless pictures. “The La Vies of 1916 on, contain splendid reproductions, both real and artistic—showing that even in its declining years, it wore the garb of beauty, and continued to hold a genuine place in the hearts of Penn State men as our oldest natural tradition.”
It still does, as demonstrated by the Class of 1921 last weekend. And the new “Old Willow,” now 54 years old, graces the mall where (according to the Penn State Alumni News in 1923) “today it bids fair to rival in beauty and affection its progenitor.”
This is only a sparse recount of the “Old Willow”… but there’s one final and new note [sic] at the Class of 1921 banquet, cuttings from the “Old Willow” were distributed to class members, and the tradition of the old tree may spring up in the backyards of alumni throughout the state and nation.
If Pope’s words are forgotten, his slip of a willow will not be.
The preceding originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times, in Katey and Ross Lehman’s “Open House” column.
- Old Willow and the Heritage Tree Endowment (October 2013)
- New Life for the Old Willow (July 2014)
- Penn State Heritage Trees and Groves, a short documentary (December 2017)