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Stopping by Old Oak

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.

 

Oct. 1, 2013

By Starla Pointer of the News-Register

 

Linfield College alumni, students and staff, and plenty of townspeople, mourned the death of the school’s iconic Old Oak in 2008.

The 80-foot-tall white oak took root a century before McMinnville was platted, welcomed the college when it moved from downtown to its current location, then survived 150 years as the school’s symbol. It toppled suddenly on a clear, calm January day.

One moment, it stood in front of Pioneer Hall, seemingly invincible. The next, it lay prone, its majestic branches tangled on the ground and its torn roots thrust up in the air.

The Old Oak is dead. Long live the Old Oak.

And live on it does. More than five years later, the Old Oak continues to be a force on the McMinnville campus.

A plaque marks the spot where the tree once stood. Many alumni and other friends of the college will visit that site this weekend as Linfield celebrates homecoming.

The Linfield alma mater has been officially modified slightly, to refer to oaks in general rather than to the specific tree, but many alumni still sing the song as it was written by a 1925 alum:

“The Old Oak gives us courage, keeps us steadfast on our way,

For her we’ll fight, with all our might, Alma Mater, we’re loyal to you.”

Paneling and countertops made from the 250-year-old wood are featured in the college’s new Starbucks. Located inside the Riley Student Center, the coffee shop opened just before fall classes started.

A plaque inside the coffee shop explains the importance of the Old Oak: “Enormous, strong and stately, it sheltered us from the sun and rain. It was the silent guardian, standing noble over generations of Native Americans, early pioneers, McMinnville residents and college students.The Old Oak may no longer grace the campus, but it remains a symbol of our history, our foundation and the many people who have created, served and led our college.”

Across the campus, planks and chunks of the Oak have been turned into bowls or pieces of furniture.

An accent table graces Pioneer Hall’s second-floor reading room, which has windows that overlook the spot where the Old Oak stood. Oaken benches serve as resting places in Taylor Hall. Podiums made from the wood are in use in several places around campus. And conference tables in Melrose Hall, including one in the president’s office, show off the oak’s unique grain.

One very special Old Oak bowl makes its appearance at the beginning and end of each school year — convocation and graduation.

The bowl rests on a special oaken stand. When not in use, it is housed in a cabinet from the same source.

It holds a collection of acorns.

The acorn, with a leaf attached, was adopted as the symbol of the college after the Old Oak fell. It represents the potential for growth inherent in every student, said Dan Preston, director of admissions.

When they enter Linfield, students take an acorn from the Old Oak bowl. When they graduate, they return the acorn as they receive their diploma. Those acorns are passed on to entering students.

The new acorn tradition started last year. “It’s something tangible, something people can touch, like we could touch the Old Oak when it was standing,” said Preston, a 1983 graduate of the college.

This year, Linfield added another tradition: taking a group photo of the incoming freshmen class posing on the graduation green in the shape of an L. Each year, the new photo will be displayed in the Dillin Hall cafeteria, mounted in a frame made with wood from the Old Oak.

It’s odd to think that today’s freshmen, whose picture will be framed by wood from the Oak, have no memories of the venerable tree, said Debbie Harmon Ferry, director of alumni and parent relations.

But Debbie Harmon Ferry and other former students remember it well. They sat in its shade on warm days, studied under it solo or as part of a class, met friends there, posed for photos beneath it or chose it as a special spot for a proposal or wedding or memorial service.

“For so many, the Old Oak is a huge part of college memories,” said Harmon Ferry, who now works at Linfield. When they gaze at Pioneer Hall, she said, they still picture the Old Oak standing before it.

In its final years, the tree still seemed eternal. It produced a healthy crop of foliage and acorns each year, and continued to shelter birds and squirrels in its branches.

But an arborist raised concerns, saying the tree was suffering from an infestation of heartwood-devouring carpenter worms. The college acted quickly — trimming out dead branches and installing a new cabling system to support remaining limbs in December 2007 — but it was too late.

Harmon Ferry recalled the afternoon when the Old Oak toppled.

Just after 1:30 p.m., a co-worker ran through the halls of Melrose, where her office is located, screaming, “It fell, it fell.” Other employees and students said they heard what they thought might be an explosion or rumble of thunder.

“Boom!” said a college employee who saw the tree go down. “There was no hesitation. It just fell over like it had been sawed off.”

Hundreds of people soon gathered to gaze at the remains of the beloved symbol. “I felt like I’d lost a good friend,” Harmon Ferry said.

Contact Starla Pointer at spointer@newsregister.com.