By Jasmine Linabary
Two or three times a week Bev Holmes, '49, and Nick Faber, '50, would walk out of Ballard Hall and head across the Loop. They would stroll over the edge of the hill and through the then-thick trees of the Back 40.
Bev and Nick spent much of their time walking around the Whitworth campus and sometimes down to Cook's Roller Rink. But the path they cherish and made part of their routine is the one to the Whitworth Tree.
"Everyone knew about it," Bev Faber said. "It was a path you took to be alone with your friend."
The Whitworth Tree, located on the edge of the present-day Duvall Hall parking lot, became a "landmark of young love" in the late '30s through early '50s. Considered the most revered tree on campus, the Whitworth Tree's draw is its trunk, which curves into a bench just wide enough for two before extending more than 60 feet into the air.
Though core samples date the tree to 1932, campus arborist Will Mellott speculates this ponderosa pine sprouted around the turn of the century. The tree's odd shape is common; environmental factors or human manipulation can force trees to grow abnormally, Mellot said.
Whatever the reason for its shape, the Whitworth Tree's bench made it a Pirate tradition, earning mention in the 1953-54 student handbook as a "monument to the fact that love and marriage still have a way of creeping into even a sturdy Pirate's life."
The tree's status as a meeting place for lovers was a source of amusement in gossip columns in The Whitworthian in the '40s and '50s. Columns would include statements about recent visits to the tree such as, "Ask John Scotford. He'll know all about it" to which Scotford, '51, replied, "I was only there once, and she wouldn't even kiss me."
Over time, the tree's reputation became synonymous with engagement, as evidenced when a student wrote in the April 29, 1955 issue of The Whitworthian: "There was a time when every male on campus would shake in his boots at the mention of this botanical terror."
Despite student-led efforts to landscape and mark the trail, awareness of the tree started to decline. By 1952, Larry Strickland, '55, wrote in The Whitworthian that the tree had fallen into a "state of neglect." Elwood Widmer, '55, said in Strickland's article, "The Whitworth Tree? Are you serious? I have a car."
Other places like the Warren Hall lounge started to vie with the Whitworth Tree as students gradually found the tree difficult to locate, according to articles in The Whitworthian.
The Whitworth Tree disappeared from Whitworth discourse until the '80s when a fence was built around the tree around so "young people might know where it was," according to a March 16, 1984 article in The Whitworthian.
Tad Wisenor, '89, became aware of the tree's history in one of his first summers as director of alumni, parent and church relations when an alumni couple engaged at the tree wanted to find it. Now, every year or two an alumni couple will request to see the tree, Wisenor said.
When the Facilities Planning Committee started planning construction of new residence halls, including Duvall Hall, in the same area as the Whitworth Tree, Wisenor made sure fellow committee members were aware of the tree's significance.
"Once the decision was made to save the tree, it took a lot of work to do so," Wisenor said. "When construction began, they put a huge barrier, almost eight feet high, around the tree."
Mellot said removal of neighboring trees in the grove behind the Village might have compromised the tree's stability roots because they all grew together. Standing alone, the Whitworth Tree is now exposed to wind and excessive light.
"Construction has changed the whole ecosystem around the tree," Mellott said.
It can take up to three years to begin to see symptoms of construction damage, said Mellott, who monitors the tree regularly, looking for fractures in the soil showing movement and other potential signs of accelerated decline.
Undisturbed, "superlative" ponderosa pines can live 500 years or longer in a favorable growing environment. In this setting, the tree's life expectancy is uncertain, Mellott said.
Wisenor has spoken with a company that could produce seedlings from the Whitworth Tree, if the tree dies. He has also considered having a bronze cast made of the base of the tree to serve as a bench in the Loop.
"The tree has come back into our consciousness as we are starting to lose even more people from that era," Wisenor said. "It's important to me to maintain that history. I'm just glad it's still around."
It has been more than 60 years since Bev and Nick Faber took their first walk to the Whitworth Tree. Bev and Nick, who married in July 1949, remember the tree fondly through an image of them as a young couple sitting on the tree's bench later made into a painting.
"It amazes me that the tree doesn't look any different now. The tree aged better than we have," Nick Faber said.
Today, a set of footprints creates a path through the fresh snow from the edge of the Duvall parking lot to the Whitworth Tree and an impression can be seen on its bench. While its legendary status has faded to a few lines in the history books, the prints in the snow are a sign that the Whitworth Tree is not forgotten.