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Tech pays tribute to fallen willow oak that dates to late 1800s

tech, tree, exhibit Students made xyloteques, books whose covers are made from trees, to commemorate Big Al, a 100-plus-year-old willow oak that split last September at Georgia Tech's campus. Credit: news.gatech.edu

By David Pendered

Leave it to the folks at Georgia Tech to turn the random falling of a towering tree into a learning experience and exhibit. The willow oak that stood for more than 100 years on campus has been rendered into remembrances that are on display through March 8.

Georgia Tech, tree down, big al

Big Al, a towering willow oak, was believed to be more than 100 years old when it fell last September near Georgia Tech’s student Center. Credit: news.gatech.edu

The beloved tree that had been named Big Al by a group of students split without warning the morning of Sept. 18, 2018. It size was befitting its age – a crown width of 87 feet on a tree that stood 81 feet high, according to a report by Tech.

The demise of the tree made headlines on campus news outlets:

  • Tree Splits Near Student Center – There’s a little less shade in the middle of campus where one of Georgia Tech’s oldest trees stood for more than a century.
  • Failing Trees to be Removed to Avoid Major Risks to Campus – Beginning as early as next week, crews will be on campus to remove two large oak trees. The two trees – a 106-foot-tall willow oak located just south of Tech Green and a 58-foot-tall water oak located at the northeast end of Fitten Residence Hall – are failing and have both been deemed very high risk by an independent arborist.”

The latest, perhaps final, memorial to Big Al was posted Thursday – Valentine’s Day:

tech, tree, exhibit

Students made xyloteques, books whose covers are made from trees, to commemorate Big Al, a 100-plus-year-old willow oak that split last September at Georgia Tech’s campus. Credit: news.gatech.edu

  • Remembering Big Al, ‘Fall of a Champion’ Memorializes Campus Tree – When a willow oak spontaneously split near the Student Center last fall, the campus community mourned its loss, placing mementos and candles on its stump before it was fully removed.
  • “A group of students took that tribute a step further by dedicating part of their classwork from the fall semester to presenting Fall of a Champion, an exhibit now on display in Clough Commons.”

Classwork, indeed.

Associate Professor Hugh Crawford shifted his plan for the students’ big project for the semester. The subject matter for the class was unchanged – the role of trees in American culture, and the ongoing “recalibration of human’s relationship with the natural world.”

But the project shifted from building a play structure for a local school to memorializing a tree that had been part of Tech’s institutional memory since about the time the school opened in October 1888 with a class of 84 students.

“It seemed obvious to do an installation,” Crawford said in the most recent story Tech posted. “We knew there’d be a lot of interesting stories to tell.”

Tech, tree, doug crawford

Hugh Crawford, the Georgia Tech associate professor who shifted his lesson plan to use the demise of a beloved tree to teach students about the relation between humans and trees, shows an exhibit to Jaimee Francis, an economics major. Credit: new.gatech.edu

Crawford asked the students to pick a tree and spend time with it each week. Just sit in the shade of the boughs, think, and write down the musings that came to mind. Student Alex Flack, an international affairs major, said he’d ignore his phone and consider readings from class or poetry, or even just consider the tree.

The final result of their work was a book, Our Forest, that contained student writings from their time beneath those trees.

Of note, the exhibit was created by students in an honors class. The Romantic notion of sitting beneath a tree, and creating art pieces from a fallen willow, came as a curve ball to students including Flack, who observed: “I never would have thought I’d do something like this coming to Tech.”

The synopsis of their class notes the purpose is to study:

  • “The advent of the Anthropocene – the geological era characterized by impact of humans on the geology of our planet – brings with it a recalibration of human’s relationship with the natural world. In recent decades, scholars working in the fields known as Animal Studies and, more recently, Plant Studies have been grappling with that relationship. This seminar will look at some of the important figures in both fields … along with some associated literature including William Faulkner.”

Note to readers: The exhibit, “Fall of a Champion,” is to be on display on the third floor of Clough Commons, at the top of the central stairwell, through March 8.


tech, tree, bookmarks

Bookmarks made from pieces of Big Al remind of the willow oak tree that fell after shading Georgia Tech’s campus for more than 100 years. Credit: news.gatech.edu


tech, tree, coasters

Some remnants of Big Al, a willow oak tree at Georgia Tech thought to be over 100 years old, were turned into coasters. Credit: news.gatech.edu



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Bo Hiers February 15, 2019 6:46 pm

    Nice write-up, David.Report

  2. Melanie Bass Pollard February 17, 2019 12:59 pm

    Hoping the campus will continue to recognize the importance of trees in our lives and make a point to replant in the same place. While trees can be dangerous, they are still keystones in our ecosystem. We need them more than they need us. Hoping to read about that soon! With projects like this, the “recalibration of human’s relationship with the natural world” is definitely something to be celebrated. Great article and hope for change in how we love our landscapes.Report

  3. JB Hackk February 18, 2019 10:26 am

    A couple of the captions say just willow tree – it’s actually a type of oak with willow shaped leaves. So you could say an oak tree, but you wouldn’t say a willow tree.Report


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