On March 18, 2014, one of the most beautiful trees on the campus of George School, a Quaker boarding and day high school in Newtown, Pa., was taken down “in deference to its frail and dangerous condition,” as stated in an update posted to the school’s Facebook page on the following day. The tree, a Japanese katsura, was diseased and losing limbs, consequences of old age and a harsh winter. It’s believed that the tree had been living on campus since shortly after George School opened in 1893. David Long, George School’s archivist, has access to the original campus landscaping plans, but was unable to locate an exact date for when the tree was planted. “It was definitely sometime between 1895 and 1910,” Long said. This timing would make the tree at least 104 years old.
During a routine evaluation of George School’s landscaping earlier this year, Steve Willard, a certified arborist at SavATree, deemed the old katsura hazardous and recommended it be taken down. Based on this recommendation, the Physical Plant Department at the school made the final decision and had SavATree remove the beloved tree from campus. Its location on the south lawn had always been a popular gathering place for students, making the farewell difficult and full of memories.
After the announcement of the sad news was posted on Facebook, dozens of alumni left sentimental comments, many recalling times spent under the tree: “This brings back wonderful memories.” “It was one of my favorite places to go on campus.” “My senior picture was taken with this tree.” “I met some really cool people under that tree.” “Losing that beautiful tree is like losing an old friend.” “It was the kind of tree you didn’t just notice; you experienced. Happily, many naps were had in its shade.” “Gazing at this tree in all seasons often helped me find an inner peace when times were tough. I will miss it.” “I remember it well . . . Lots of pics, laughs, and even kisses under that tree . . .”
The alumni comments got a reaction from George School. “Based on the response from alumni, the school decided to keep the tradition alive and plant a new katsura tree,” said Laura Lavallee, director of public relations at George School. She also explained that the school’s alumni helped provide the budget for this endeavor. Thinking ahead to Alumni Weekend in May, members from the Class of 2004 were preparing to make a gift to the school in honor of their tenth reunion. At the suggestion of the director of alumni relations, Karen Hallowell, who had discovered that the class had a significant amount of money in their treasury, the class decided to donate the leftover money and raise some additional funds in order to purchase a new katsura and name it in honor of their class.
More than a hangout spot on campus, the katsura tree has another meaning to George School. The tree was the model for the school’s “tree in full-leaf” logo that was created in the late 1990s by Rutka Weadock Design to replace the “tree in winter” logo of the 1970s that some people called the broccoli logo. The new logo was implemented in 2000 by the George School Committee at the urging of the Marketing Committee and following an 18-month survey in 1998–99 of students, alumni, and faculty. Respondents of the survey were asked to select their favorite design from a collection of seven potential logo choices.
On April 9, less than a month after the old tree was removed, a new katsura tree was planted directly next to the previous location. Vince Campellone, the grounds supervisor at the school for 39 years, reached out to George School alum Doug MacDowell (Class of 1979), the owner of American Treescapes in Doylestown, Pa., to find the new tree. MacDowell located a mature katsura tree (about 18 years old, 9 to 10 inches in diameter, and 30 feet tall) at a nursery in Lancaster, Pa. American Treescapes picked up the tree from the nursery and delivered it to George School’s campus using a tree spade truck, a large vehicle designed for transporting and planting trees.
Lavallee and Odi LeFever, director of communications and marketing, decided to set up a video camera to record the planting and share the feed live online via Livestream, a live streaming video platform. Lavallee shared the reasoning behind the livestream event: “We knew it would be important to alumni to see the event take place since so many of them had worried that the tree wouldn’t be replaced. So we wanted them to be a part of it.” The online event got over 100 views throughout the day. A timelapse video was then created using the live footage and posted on the school’s YouTube channel. You can watch the video at fdsj.nl/GSkatsura.
The old katsura tree hasn’t seen its last days yet, as it will live on in another more artistic form. The wood from the tree was given to the woodshop at George School to be saw milled (about 75 percent of the materials for the woodworking program comes from trees on campus) and naturally dried, a process which takes several years to complete depending on the thickness of the wood (one inch takes one year to dry). According to Carter Sio, the woodshop teacher, the plan for the katsura wood is to invite interested alumni, parents, and current art teachers to create pieces of art directly from the wood or by using the image of the tree. “There are so many creative things you can do with wood, so I didn’t want to limit it just to craft, but also photography, painting, and drawing,” said Sio. A selection committee will then pick out pieces from the participating artists to be displayed in an exhibit at the school. Photographs of each piece of art created will be compiled into a book.
“Watching the old tree come down was very emotional for me,” said Sio. “I’ve been running the woodworking program here for 30 years, and my classroom looks out over the tree so I looked at it every day. It was a wonderful tree, an absolutely stunning tree. But now we look at the new one right next to the old stump.” The tradition lives on for another 100 years.