UI introduces history to campus landscape with tree planting


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A white oak tree looms over a young man as he sits to eat his lunch.

Approximately 330 years ago, William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, sat beneath that tree, whose offspring is now growing on the University of Iowa campus.

UI officials planted one of the tree’s saplings in front of the English-Philosophy Building on Thursday.

The original tree in Pennsylvania — now known as “The Great Oak of London Grove” — dropped acorns that were planted and grew into more trees.

“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” said UI arborist Andrew Dahl. “To think this tree has such a historic bloodline is pretty neat. It’s one of a kind [at the UI.]”

The idea originally came from a conversation between Dahl and UI philosophy Associate Professor Evan Fales, who were discussing another tree being cut down on campus when the famous white oak came up. Fales’ mother had created a kindergarten school, London Grove Friends Kindergarten, in front of the famous tree, and Fales had grown up with it.

“When I was younger, I tried climbing it; that was not a good idea,” Fales said. “[Having the tree at the UI] reminds me of my mother. Her grave actually overlooks the tree. I can just see [the sapling] from my office window.”

After Fales and Dahl talked, Fales contacted a teacher from London Grove, Cindy Leahan, and asked her to collect some acorns from the tree.

“Evan’s mother was the head teacher, and I had tremendous respect for her,” Leahan said. “I didn’t know his mom really well, because I was coming to the school when she was retiring. But Ruth was a magnificent teacher and a remarkable person. When Evan wrote asking me to collect acorns from the tree, I was happy to.”

Leahan sent the acorns to Fales, but they were crushed during the journey, making them unusable. 
However, Leahan found saplings from an offspring of the original white oak and sent them to Dahl. The other sapling is slated to be planted near the UI Research Park in Oakdale.

The original tree in Pennsylvania has been standing since before Penn arrived in the United States in 1682. London Grove Village is located about a half hour from Philadelphia, where Penn lived, and historians have speculated he passed by and even ate a meal under the tree.

“Trees bear witness to a lot of events,” Dahl said. “It’s neat to think of in history all that they’ve been through.”

Both Fales and Dahl have a passion for trees and hope to continue pursuing their interest. Fales wants to return to Pennsylvania in a few years after he retires to collect more saplings from the white oak, he said.

“I hope to get back to my old stomping grounds, where there are about a dozen samples to collect,” Fales said. “The best time to collect is in the fall, which is when I’m teaching. I’m going to retire in a few years, and I’ll go back then.”

Dahl says the planting of the tree adds yet another historical marker to campus.

“I think it really adds something to campus life,” he said. “There are more than 200 species to add diversity; now, we have one rich with history.”

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