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Storm topples beloved landmark at St. Leo's. Fall of giant hackberry caught on camera
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Storm topples beloved landmark at St. Leo's. Fall of giant hackberry caught on camera

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Beloved St. Leo tree falls, splits in three different directions

The literal bird’s-eye view, supplied in this case by a high-res drone, shows the final resting place in the long, long life of a common American hackberry tree — which, upon reflection, was anything but common.

The tree, perhaps 70 or 80 feet tall with a thick canopy nearly as wide, towered over the “ladybug” playset behind St. Leo’s Catholic School for generations.

“Like a granddad all those years looking over the kids playing on the playground,” said Jim Wall, a parishioner, father of nine and a volunteer basketball coach paid with Diet Cokes and fond memories.

The massive common hackberry toppled under the weight of ice nearly two weeks ago, a symbol of life, death and all things in between that matter most.

“It was part of the community,” Wall said, “not just a tree.”

'The stories it could tell'

Every park, neighborhood and outdoor spot where people gather has its own iconic shade tree where children would test their nerve climbing its branches and weary grandparents might stop for respite from summer’s heat.

In Tanglewood Park, until it fell in March 2013 under the power of unceasing high winds, it was an enormous 400-year-old white oak known to many as the Wedding Tree. Over in God’s Acre at Old Salem, that spot is anchored by a gnarled old ginkgo.

And at St. Leo’s, a Catholic elementary and middle school that grew from the Villa Maria Anna Academy founded in 1949 by nuns in a convent on Georgia Avenue, thousands of parishioners, teachers and former students have memories of that giant hackberry.

“It was literally in the middle of everything,” said Jean Anne Semke. “Children played under it. Teachers took classes out there to study when it was nice.”

The species, known scientifically as Celtis occidentalis, can be found in nearly every state between southern Canada and Florida, as far west as the Rocky Mountains.

They can live to be 200 years old, and under the right conditions, grow to 80, 90, even 100-feet tall. Scientists have found them to be hardy specimens able to withstand wind, pollution, salt and the vagaries of soil composition.

This particular hackberry, like the Wedding Tree and the old ginkgo of Old Salem, was named in 2009 a “Treasure Tree” by a committee formed by the Forsyth Cooperative Extension Office — a distinction bestowed to educate interested parties on the importance of trees in building and sustaining life.

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“We really weren’t focusing so much on pushing the planting of native trees,” said Toby Bost, a former extension agent, in 2017 when asked about the program. “We were looking at the largest tree specimens and trying to encourage people to take care of them.”

And vice-versa.

Semke recalled that her children invariably started answering the old standard question “What did you do in school today?” with a clause invoking that tree.

“My daughter remembered when her second grade teacher got engaged. Her husband-to-be brought ice cream for the class,” she said. “It was little things like that that made such a big impression.

“If that tree could talk, the stories it could tell.”

Looking forward

When the first of the two recent predicted ice storms, on Saturday, Feb. 13, turned out to be less ferocious than initially feared, many breathed a collective sigh of relief.

It could have been worse.

That wasn’t the case at St. Leo’s. A video captured by a security camera recorded the tree’s last moments. The bird’s-eye photo, taken last week by a small drone, shows a giant split by the weight of ice in three near equal parts.

The initial reaction was, of course, one of gratitude. On any given Saturday morning, the parking lot could easily have been filled with parents taking kids to volleyball or basketball games.

“We easily could have had an event there that day,” Wall said. “We’re all so glad nobody was hurt when it came down. That’s the most important thing.”

Gratitude, though, was followed quickly by shock. Word spread via text and old-fashioned phone calls; parishioners, parents and alumni drifted by to see for themselves — and to pay their respects.

“I took my son up there Monday to see it,” Wall said. “When we got to the school, it was jaw-dropping.”

Interestingly, his next thought wasn’t over what has been. Rather, Wall shifted to the practical, what may come and what will be, a natural reaction from a man who grew up outdoors in southwestern Virginia.

“Maybe we’ll get some wood from it,” he said. “My mom has this huge bowl, we call it the Hugo bowl, made from a big old tree that fell during that (1989) storm.”

That’s practical, the old making-lemonade-when-life-hands-you-a-lemon. Next came the hopeful, a thoughtful nod to the future

“I hope we can plant a new one, and maybe someday our grandchildren can enjoy it the way we did this one,” Wall said.

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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