Bay Reflection

Vol. 8, No. 19
May 11-17, 2000
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Without Liberty: Johnnies Graduate in the Sun
When you lose a tradition, it’s time to create a new one.

by Stacy Allen

One thing is for certain: Commencement at St. John’s College will never be the same. Where once there was a tree — where once ancient branches offered abundant shade — today a smooth green blanket of grass conceals any evidence that the Liberty Tree ever stood.

Last fall, after Hurricane Floyd, we waited for weeks while experts assessed the Liberty Tree, until finally we got word: The tree had to come down. My classmates and I had been looking forward to graduating under that unbelievably old tulip poplar. For weeks, we walked the perimeter of a hideous plastic orange fence surrounding the Liberty Tree and pondered its perishing — and the end of some great traditions.

When our Liberty Tree came down it was at least 400 years old — possibly older. In recent years, it had a strange existence: Part living tree, part filled with cement, part injected with plastic and largely supported by wires. These remedies staved off decay and allowed the tree to continue to bloom each spring.

The last Liberty Tree in the nation, older even than the college, was kept alive for our pleasure and by our design. Certainly it was lovely and unusual in the moonlight between winter classes. By daylight, the tree offered shade to centuries’ of readers and resters; I know I caught a late afternoon nap there more than once. None of us remember the tree’s early days, though we romanticize about secretive councils of the Sons of Liberty and imagine history unfolding beneath its boughs.

There’s a sort of mystical irony that the Liberty Tree won’t accompany St. John’s graduates into the 21st century. If we could, we would have done what it took to keep that tree alive indefinitely; yet a tree by nature lives and dies. Allowing the tree to perish meant letting go of our attachments and expectations, and for many students — alumni as well as current students — that wasn’t easy.

The brutal weather this past week has made the loss of the Liberty Tree even less tolerable. This Sunday, May 14, the St. John’s College class of 2000 — undergraduates as well as GI’s (Graduate Institute students) will celebrate commencement on the college’s front lawn. Two weeks ago we celebrated another croquet victory (minus Liberty shade this time). Some traditions gladly continue, while others we must allow to pass. If any time is appropriate to begin a new tradition, this new millennium seems to be.

Maybe, too, the cuttings taken last spring will result in a successful Liberty Tree clone. Across the grounds and near the library, another beautiful tree stands, a child of the Liberty Tree planted to commemorate the change of name that occurred over 100 years ago — when the King William School became St. John’s College. Perhaps in the future a child of the Liberty Tree will occupy that very spot — that conspicuously empty spot — where the Liberty Tree so long stood. Most of us at the College received a slice of the tree after its demise — a little memorabilia to frame alongside that diploma, perhaps?

While the whole dilemma and disappearance of the tree from our traditions has been disappointing, the story seems far from hopeless, far from over. The Class of 2000 should set some sort of precedent, so perhaps this is the opportunity. As my friend Mr. Rose put it, “ I don’t think we should think of ourselves as the first class not able to graduate under the Liberty Tree. We should see ourselves as the first class to graduate across the lawn.”

Former Bay Weekly intern and contributing writer Stacy Allen teaches at Summit School. Shortly after receiving her master’s degree from St. John’s College, she will give birth to her second child.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly