Centre College loses historic American Beech tree
An American Beech tree that has likely graced the campus of Centre College since its founding in 1819 was cut down this week, but although the beloved tree no longer graces the lawn in front of Young Hall, its presence will remain on campus.
The tree-removal process took place over a several-day period. Wood from the tree will be salvaged and used to create a number of keepsake items to commemorate its existence, as well as for lumber. In addition, a cross section of the massive tree, cut to allow an exact determination of its age, will be made into a display to map Centre’s history by reference to the tree’s rings.
Known affectionately to some as “The Lady,” this particular beech tree is Fagus grandifolia. The taxonomy refers to the tree’s edible nuts and its large leaves. Fagus is classical Latin derived from the Greek phagein, meaning “to eat,” andgrandifolia literally means “large leaves.”
The tree was memorialized several weeks ago in an informal ceremony attended by faculty and staff just after the end of the 2010-11 academic year. At the impromptu gathering, Matthew Klooster, assistant professor of biology, read the classic Joyce Kilmer poem “Trees” that begins with the famous lines “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” Anne Lubbers, professor of biology, read from A Natural History of Trees by Donald Culross Peattie, who wrote that “A beech tree is, in almost any landscape where it appears, the finest tree to be seen.”
While the cause of her demise may never be fully known, The Lady is likely the victim of a combination of factors, including old age, late summer droughts, the devastating ice storm of January 2009, and—despite the best of intentions—renovation of Young Hall.
Associate dean and professor of chemistry Keith Dunn, who served as project shepherd for the renovation of Young Hall, notes that the addition was actually designed around the tree. From there, an arborist was consulted, and by establishing a “drip edge,” a perimeter was created to protect the tree’s root system, which is more sensitive than others because of its relative shallowness.
Centre’s first lady, Susie Roush, who is very protective of the College’s urban forest, insisted on extending the diameter of the drip line. Nonetheless, she surmises that late summer droughts over the years also potentially affected the tree’s health, as did the accumulated and imperceptible stress on such a large tree with a twin trunk.
Among its many attractions, the beech tree is known for its smooth, gray bark, which has proven an ideal canvas for the numerous initials and professions of love carved into the trunk over the years.
David Grissom ’60, a life trustee and former chair of the Board of Trustees, has fond memories of The Lady from his days as a Centre student. One of Grissom’s three campus jobs was driving a bus from the Centre campus to Kentucky College for Women. The trek from his dorm in Breckenridge Hall to Old Main, where the bus stopped, brought him by The Lady every day. He was impressed, he says, by “the majesty of her trunk and crown,” which he says never lost its power to fascinate.
Anne Lubbers, who once had an office in Young Hall that gave her direct visual access into the tree’s canopy, has her own fond memories, one of which has to do with the beechnuts that have provided endless nourishment and fascination for the many squirrels that have played among tree’s roots and in her branches. She remembers a particularly touching moment one day when walking by the tree as a mother squirrel tried hard to entice her baby from a nest with some of the beechnuts. Lubbers said it reminded her of a faculty member’s task to coax students into learning new topics and ideas.
In recognition of the beech tree’s important place in Centre’s heart and history, an anonymous donor has pledged to provide the College with several new American Beech trees. A ceremony will take place during the ideal planting season in December or January.