Auburn tradition ends as Toomer's trees taken down chunk by chunk

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerApril 22, 2013 

They’ve been dying for more than two years, unable to feed themselves and unable to suckle on the nourishing Alabama sun.

Trees usually die in seclusion but in 1937 these magnificent oaks sprouted alongside U.S. 29, a federal highway that was a two-lane gateway to the Gulf of Mexico — and Tuesday morning that is where they died.

The beginning of the end for the iconic oaks came shortly after 8:15 a.m. EDT when a commercial tree worker, standing in a bucket truck, started looping cable over lifeless limbs still decorated with strands of toilet paper.

Five minutes later, with the roar of a chain saw disturbing the peace, a limb under the Magnolia Avenue street sign was severed. Other pieces followed, signaling that death had come to the Toomer’s Corner trees. An oversized clamp lowered larger pieces to the ground.

Asplundh Tree Experts finished what a deranged football fan started. Workers carefully preserved every sliver of bark while others recorded the activity with cell phone cameras. The wood will be turned into souvenir items with proceeds from their sale going to student scholarships.

Gary Keever, the Auburn professor who tried to save the trees, watched without emotion as they came down.

“We’ve known this day was coming, so months ago we began to disassociate ourselves from the trees on the plaza,” Keever said Tuesday. “There are 9,000 trees on this campus and we had to take care of them.”

Through the years, the two oaks survived cars crashing into their trunks, years of drought and the fierce impact of pressure washers on cold fall weekends before succumbing on Tuesday. They were believed to be 76 years old.

Survivors include generations of Auburn graduates and football fans who have shown their love for the trees by decorating the limbs with rolls of store-bought toilet paper.

In 2010, an Alabama football fan heinously poisoned the oak trees with a herbicide known as Spike 80-DF. The deadly chemical blocked the trees’ ability to convert sunlight into energy and put them on a starvation diet. Harvey Updyke Jr. killed the trees, but not the spirit they symbolize.

Brooks Forehand said this is like losing two old friends. The Columbus car dealer and lifelong Tiger fan said the death of the trees is bitter sweet. “Those mighty oaks have been a symbol of strength and longevity.”

Forehand prepared for this moment. Years ago, he planted a Toomer’s Oak seedling in his front yard.

People’s affection for the trees has deepened since Updyke’s attack. The Auburn family embraced them and nurtured them even after they were put on horticultural life support.

The oaks became reminders of a simpler time when bonfires burned the Bulldogs and parades wrecked Tech.

Trey Johnston has seen those changes. He is 60 years old and for most of his life the trees have stood across the road from the show windows of his family’s store. That gave him front row seat to the rolling of the trees — a ritual that celebrates Auburn victories.

Since 1953 he and his family have owned J&M Bookstore, a fixture on College Street here students can shop for textbooks or a complete Auburn wardrobe.

“We’ve had the greatest view in Auburn,” he said. “But for the past few years, I couldn’t bear to look at them. They looked like 'Hanging Trees.'”

Michael Overstreet, the owner of historic Toomer’s Drug Store, has experienced that same sadness. He no longer fills prescriptions. He sells mass quantities of lemonade and T-shirts that eulogize the oak trees.

“You look out that window and you feel sad but for years we saw the best tradition in college football, one that will never be duplicated. It was one the whole family could enjoy,” Overstreet said.

On Saturday, Forehand dropped by campus to pay his final respects. He wasn’t alone.

Thousands came. Who knows? Maybe Nick Saban even came down from Tuscaloosa.

The Alabama coach could have blended in for more than 83,000 fans unexpectedly showed up for A-Day and after the game, it appeared closer to 100,000 muscled into Toomer’s Corner. Many threw $5 souvenir rolls of specially packaged toilet paper in the general direction of the trees.

The rally provided Auburn a chance to forget a dismal football season, the firing of a head coach who two years ago delivered a national championship and renewed hints of scandal reported by a former campus sports editor.

It was also a time for traditions.

The trees were shrouded in a sea of toilet paper, making the oaks remember the glory days when they were young and healthy. Fans chanted familiar cheers. The marching band played songs from the Auburn Hit Parade and Gus Malzahn — the school’s new football coach — sounded like a politician on the campaign trail as he revved up the crowd with rousing promises of victory.

David Housel, the school’s Athletic Director Emeritus since 2006, also spoke. He came to Auburn from tiny Gordo, Ala., nearly 50 years ago and has always viewed the school through the eyes of a poet. But as the trees went down, he looked ahead.

“Auburn people mourned the loss of traditions in the past and they still survived,” Housel said. “And even after the death of the trees, life will still go on.”

Born as East Alabama Male College in 1856, the school was known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute for 61 years before its name officially changed to Auburn University in 1961.

From the beginning, the area known as Toomer’s Corner was a rallying spot. Named for Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on Auburn’s first football team in 1892, it was where people gathered after southern states seceded from the Union and where locals marked the election of the nation’s first African American president.

It was commonly accepted that the trees at Toomer’s were 130 years old. But after sorting through thousands of photographs, a campus archivist concluded they were transplanted sometime in 1937, making the oaks around 76 years old.

The debate over when the rolling of the trees began goes on. Some people claim it began in the 1940s. Others trace it back to the days when people depended on the telegraph line at Toomer’s Drug Store for important news such as football scores.

Legend is that when people ripped off the ticker tape from the Teletype machine they tossed it over the overhead wires to celebrate an Auburn victory. According to local lore, that evolved into trees being littered with toilet paper.

That didn’t happen until 1972, Housel said.

“We celebrated Pat Sullivan winning the Heisman Trophy there in 1971 and no toilet paper was tossed. That started a year later when we celebrated the 17-16 victory over Alabama in the ‘Punt, Bama, Punt’ game,” Housel said.

That was the game in which Auburn ran back two punts for touchdowns in the last six minutes. The use of toilet paper was inspired by comments from Terry Henley, a colorful halfback whose rural drawl made him a darling of reporters.

The unbeaten Crimson Tide was second in the nation coming into the game and Henley made a pledge: “We’re going to beat the No. 2 out of Alabama.”

Hence the rolls of Charmin.

Bill Smith started to Auburn in 1960 on a forgotten plan that allowed students to attend college for three years and law school for two. At the end of that time a person was granted two degrees. The Columbus High grad did that on his way to a stint with the FBI and a respected career as a prosecutor and Superior Court judge in Muscogee County.

“My last football season at Auburn was in 1962. We didn’t roll the trees but Toomer’s Corner and Samford Park were already landmarks. People said that was where gown met town,” Smith said.

Twila Rhodes Kirkland also graduated before the rolling of the trees began but that doesn’t diminish her love of the trees.

“I’m despondent about the oaks,” said Kirkland, a radio account executive in Columbus.

“Toomer’s Corner is the epicenter of everything Auburn. I was so hopeful that the trees would survive their attack. I’m not mad. I am simply sad.”

Smith is grateful that the legal shenanigans are finally over. “I’m glad those things are behind us as the trees are put to rest.”

Keever, a horticulture professor at Auburn, led a team of experts that tried to save the trees. They dug up tainted soil around the roots, used liquefied charcoal to draw out the poison and drilled 49 holes in each tree to inject a sugary solution.

Only nothing worked.

Keever saw the trees as classroom projects at first. That soon changed. “There’s a human tide of it that I can’t get away from now.”

Now they are gone, ripping away another thread from the quilt that is Auburn, another tradition that may never be replaced. That’s why a campus PR man felt melancholy when he hit the send button on his last new release about the trees.

“It felt so final,” Mike Clardy said.

Housel doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m an old guy so I can’t say what the new traditions will be but I know they’ll come. Young people will put their own mark on it, reminding us that the time has come to change.”

For more information on Toomer's Oaks, click here. For photos from Saturday's ceremony, click here.

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