On June 1, our iconic Founder’s Oak tree fell. This majestic landmark at the front of campus witnessed the comings and goings of many generations of Athenians. It provided welcome shade for those who relaxed on benches beneath; it was the site of faculty and alumni weddings; countless families gathered under the tree to commemorate milestone events like first days of school and graduation.
At Reunion on June 4, just three days after the tree fell, former teacher and Upper School Head, Dick Bradford, addressed a crowd of 120 community members with his recollections of Founder’s Oak. Here is a transcript of his remarks:
For those of you who don’t know me, I am Dick Bradford, former dorm head, coach, literature teacher, academic dean, head of Upper School, and alumni parent. I came out here from New England in the fall of 1981, thinking I would be here for a couple of years. I retired in June of 2018.
I wanted to say a few words about the Founder’s Oak – a tree with which I have some history. When I started here , I was the dorm parent of Boys’ 1 – now known as Reinhardt. For those of you of a certain age, before me, this was Lester Henderson’s dorm. My bedroom is now the Founder’s Oak conference room – my living room and kitchen are now Eric and Debbie’s offices. So I would go past that tree every morning on the way to breakfast. It provided great shade against the afternoon sun for my apartment.
As my career moved on at Athenian, I became in charge of organizing Back to School afternoons – where the parents had an opportunity to follow their children’s schedule for the afternoon, meeting briefly with their teachers – discovering why we had ten minute passing periods. This was in the early part of September, so we used the Founder’s Oak for shade – I remember marking out the exact spots of shade to design the seating arrangement.
The Middle School used the Founder’s Oak as the site for their graduation every June. This posed a logistical problem for the Upper School, which at that time had an all school meeting in the nearby Main Hall– and we were told in no uncertain terms that our meeting could not interrupt the Middle School graduation under the Founder’s Oak. Since I knew I could not control a hall full of adolescents for an hour while the Middle School graduated, I made up the tradition of a walk of reflective silence, single-filing from the doors to the east lawn, up to the driveway of House 1, and then down the drive to meet on the far corner of the soccer field, where I would do my best to inspire the students with a poem ( Musee de Beaux Arts) or a story (The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas). This worked reasonably well, although I always felt vaguely guilty about creating ritual over a scheduling conflict.
Then we were told that the tree was in danger of falling. This was years and years ago, and we did our best to mitigate any damage we might have inadvertently have been doing through watering. All events under the tree were then cancelled – we re-scheduled the graduation ceremonies to avoid the conflict, thus ending the reflective silence ritual – and built an interpretative walkway with quotation from Kurt Hahn and Dyke Brown at various points. Lovely idea – not sure how many people were aware of it. More visible were the hundred of daffodils planted by Eleanor Dase that came up each year around the tree. Thanks again for that Eleanor – and again for everything.
So now the tree has fallen. I used to present a slideshow at the beginning of the year to students, trying to acquaint with the history of the school – one of the slides was from a local paper saying “Mighty Oak has Fallen”. It was talking about a huge oak that was on the entrance to the School – on the left, just past the school sign. This was then just a practice field, not the parking lot it is today. I bring it up only because oak trees fall all the time. When I lived in House 1, I was working in my study one night in late August, with the side door open, when I heard a sound I could not identify. We had a trampoline outside that door, and the only thing that came to mind was that a deer had somehow gotten into the trampoline and was struggling with the webbing. I got a flashlight – and the trampoline was fine. The next day, I looked out and a huge oak tree halfway up the hill behind our house had split in two and fallen.
So, oaks have their cycle, as do all of us. I used to read a poem to the Upper School every spring about the cycle of trees. I come from New England – the poem is Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. I noticed that the oaks around my house on campus which lost their leaves in the fall would push forth leaf tips that were golden, and for a few short days, the leaves were gold, instead of green. Bruce Hamren complained every year that I was missing the purple phase of this transition – I’ll leave that to your judgment. This usually happened in March, so I would talk to the students about the transitory nature of beauty – to remind them to make sure they treasured their moment with their friends , families and landscapes, because spring, like life, goes by like a torrent – and we need to reassure all that we have while we have it. Here is the poem:
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.-Robert Frost
And I would say the same to all of you now – hold fast to these moments, make sure to appreciate love and beauty as they show themselves to you – this is, after all, what gives us appreciation for the past, an understanding of the present – and hope for the future.