It is often said that which does not kill us makes us stronger.
As unbelievable as the story now seems, the massive oak trees at Toomer’s Corner were poisoned back 2010. Most know the story of the overzealous Alabama fan that poisoned the trees after an Auburn victory in Tuscaloosa.
The misguided fan, Harvey Updyke, wound up spending six months in jail and was ordered to pay more restitution that he’ll likely be making in the rest of his lifetime. Sadly, the harshest punishment for Updyke personally was the ban from attending Alabama football games in the future.
That could have been the end of the story, but in many ways it was only the beginning. It was heartbreaking to see the efforts of some of the world’s foremost agricultural scientists in their futile efforts to save the oaks. The trees slowly withered until even the most passionate Auburn fans knew it was time to move on.
Alabama fans and students alike helped raise part of the funds to first save and then replace the oaks. That gesture is meaningful to all that are passionate about college football, but realize that in the end it is just a game.
While many wanted the trees immediately replaced, it took time to do it right. The soil had to be removed, still so laced with poison that nothing would likely grow and live as long as it remained.
Different designs for Toomer’s Corner were solicited and Auburn alumni all over the world voted for their favorite design. Slowly the new Toomer’s Corner took shape, grudgingly gaining acceptance from those who still mourned the loss of the trees.
A new plaza made the corner more accessible, while the new gates formed a natural entrance to the university. The seating areas welcomed people to come, sit and enjoy the place many consider the heart of the Auburn experience.
It wasn’t until this past weekend, on Valentine’s Day, that the restoration of the corner became complete. Two oaks, 35 feet in height, were transported from South Carolina, and gently placed on either side of the gate. The Toomer’s Oaks were finally back where they belong.
Most will not understand why this was so important to so many with a connection to Auburn.
They won’t understand why people lined up six and seven deep to watch for hours the long process of planting the big trees. They probably wouldn’t understand why thousands of others, like myself, spent hours that day watching the planting via webcam.
This isn’t the end of the story. An additional 30 trees, born from acorns from the original oaks and nurtured for the past 12 years, will line a new walkway through Samford Park. The walkway will go from the “new” Toomer’s Corner to Samford Hall, where my great-grandfather graduated in 1903.
Nearly five years after the tragic death of the Toomer’s Oaks, there is something bigger, better and grander than before. There is a new story to be told, from the old, faithful alumni to those yet to feel the spirit of this place while walking through the gates.
The original Toomer’s Oaks in Auburn may have died, but their spirit and the spirit of the Auburn family lives on, stronger than ever.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]