As thousands of students, faculty, staff and visitors walk beneath the shade of the stalwart oak trees across the University of Central Arkansas campus, few are aware of the story behind the trees.
Many of the oak trees lining the sidewalks on Donaghey Avenue and outside Wingo Hall, McCastlain Hall and Bernard Hall were planted after the end of World War II as a living memorial and infinite tribute to those who ultimately gave their lives.
Then named Arkansas State Teachers College (ASTC), the University initially planted 38 trees in 1946 and have planted more over time as more alums were identified as having been killed in the war.
Students from the post-World War II era remember the times all too well.
“Most of the football team worked on that tree project,” said Dr. Conrad Garner ’49. “We had a lot of good people on our campus at that time, and we all worked on it. The student body and everybody was supportive of the tree planting.”
Garner, a World War II veteran himself, played on the undefeated Bears football team of 1947. He is now 93 years old.
He joined the 7.8 million veterans who went to college after being discharged. At ASTC, enrollment increased from 355 students in the 1944-1945 academic year to 1,428 in the 1947-1948 academic year.
“It felt like it was more veterans than there were people who weren’t veterans on campus,” said Bill Ledbetter ’53, also a World War II veteran who played with Garner on that winning 1947 team.
“There were 40 World War II veterans on the team, and we had six guys who weren’t veterans. They were too young when the war ended,” Ledbetter recalled, now 89 years old.
Mike Malham ’49, another World War II veteran and teammate called it the “Fabulous 40 Team.”
“I remember when the trees were planted. We never talked about it too much,” Malham said, now age 91.
In the decades since the trees were planted, the placement of the War Memorial trees was not clearly defined.
“We knew generally where the trees were, but no one really knew for sure,” said Gayle Seymour, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication.
The University unveiled a polished, black granite World War II Memorial in 2003. Names of the fallen alumni are etched with gold lettering on the commemorative structure that sits outside McAlister Hall. The War Memorial Trees, however, had become buried in the University’s memory.
In 2014, Seymour began working with other UCA employees–Charlotte Strickland ’81, Kevin Carter ’10, David Williams ’12, Dr. Scott Nadler and Mark White–and two students to form an ad hoc committee. The committee would work to identify the War Memorial Trees and then mark each of them with a soldier’s name.
The committee called upon the assistance of Steven Karafit, biology professor, who helped them identify oak trees on campus that were likely planted in the 1946 era. Amanda Bryant, interlibrary loan supervisor, created a design for the committee featuring an oak leaf and 47 acorns, representing the 46 men and one woman killed in World War II.
Like the trees themselves, the committee stood stalwart, unwilling to lean or fall.
“They sacrificed their lives for our freedom. I still believe in making sure that we take our time and recognize those who sacrificed and gave it all,” said Williams, Veteran Services coordinator at UCA and Marine Corps veteran. He called his Marine brothers for help.
“When I presented it to them, it was unanimous. It was something everyone could get behind,” said Dwight Witcher ’77, president of the Conway chapter of the Marine Corps League.
Witcher said he and the members of the League secured donations from local businesses for the concrete, steel, form material, powder coating and other items needed to construct the plaques.
Once donations were secured, league members divided into four volunteer work parties, working several days to prep and fabricate the 47 sites. The committee expects to place the plaques at the trees in early November 2015.
“As it turns out, we poured concrete on the hottest day of summer,” Witcher remembered. “The temperature was 103 and the heat index was 115.”
Witcher said the oldest veteran who volunteered on a work party was 89. Another veteran drove from Jonesboro to Conway to help on the work parties. The work teams consisted primarily of Vietnam era veterans and some Desert Storm veterans.
Regardless of the heat and the task, the team kept working and completed their work, motivated by their motto, Semper Fidelis which means always faithful.
“All of us at this age really have an appreciation for the World War II veterans. They absolutely saved the world as we know it,” Witcher said. “We just felt like we owed this to those 47 whose names will be dedicated at those trees, even if its 70 years late. That’s the least we could do for them.”