Each December when town and gown gather in front of Waller Hall to light the Star Trees, Margaret Ringnalda remembers their “birth.”
Now some of the largest trees on any American campus, the Giant Sequoias were planted during World War II.
“I watched as the tiny saplings went into the ground,” the emeritus faculty member says. At 103, she still has the same sculpted face and clear-eyed gaze she did in 1942. She was an actress and drama professor turned poet and English professor.
The sequoias were planted in honor of Willamette’s centennial by Willamette President Carl Sumner Knopf. He had arrived in the fall of 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, but the brilliant scholar came at an unfortunate time, and his stay was short. He was a Quaker, and times of war are not kind to pacifists. The trees became his parting gift to the University.
“Dr. Knopf turned the first spade of dirt,” Ringnalda says. He spoke about the worldwide conflict to preserve freedoms taught at Willamette: freedom of expression, freedom of political action, freedom of belief. “Each sequoia planted here we regard as a tree of liberty,” he said.
Art student Nadine Orcutt ’42 fired ceramic tablets with an engraved message from Knopf, and they were buried under the trees alongside other treasures. The time capsule was unearthed 50 years later by Willamette students who — working with Religious Studies Professor Dave McCreery — dug through bark dust, soil and a mass of small roots. The box included a University history, along with quotations from the Bible and William Shakespeare. (See the 1992 Willamette Journal of the Liberal Arts for a report on the time capsules.)
“All of the people who helped plant the trees have mostly passed on,” Ringnalda says. “To think how the trees have grown through the years, as have I, is quite something.”
The five saplings would grow stories tall and create a star shape where they met the sky. Decades of young lovers would stand under their boughs to share a first kiss, which put them on the path to lasting love according to campus lore. And each year in December students would carol and a child would light the trees as townspeople came from miles around to experience oldfashioned awe. The Star Trees, planted in a time of worldwide destruction, now encircle visitors with fragrant peace.
“I like to remember standing there and watching those trees planted, so many years ago,” Ringnalda says. “I expect I’m the only person around who was there, but I can see some things as if they were just happening now.”
World’s Largest Trees
The Giant Sequoia is the world’s largest tree and one of the most longlived. Willamette’s Star Trees are still young compared to many existing sequoias between 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Although a mature tree may contain up to 30,000 cones, the trees are undergoing a gradual decline. They are having difficulty reproducing in their original habitat and rarely reproduce in cultivation. This photo shows the Star Trees in the 1950s.