A Poisoned Mind Killed The Auburn Trees But Not Their Memory

A Poisoned Mind Killed The Auburn Trees But Not Their Memory

A recent story in the New York Times chronicles the horrible poisoning and fight to save the Toomer Oaks at Auburn University. It’s hard to believe an Alabama football fan would resort to killing beloved trees on the Auburn campus. What’s not hard to believe is that great people are keeping the memory of the trees alive. Here is the story:

AUBURN, Ala. — There is a tree sculpture inside the Auburn Art store, a replica of an oak that towered over the entrance to Auburn University for decades.

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The Auburn horticulturalist Gary Keever with a stump from one of the oaks

This tree, like the original, is scarred near the base and missing a branch. It cost $45,000, took five months to build in California, was disassembled, was shipped here and was stitched together again.

Cliff Hare, the man who had it built, is an Auburn lifer. The football stadium is in part named after his great-grandfather. He first went to Toomer’s Corner, at the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue, site of all significant Auburn milestones, as an infant.

Auburnites celebrated weddings there and Olympic feats and graduations. But mostly, they assembled after football games, where they hoisted hundreds of rolls of toilet paper high into two mighty trees — Toomer’s Oaks, more than 80 years old each. That was before the oaks were poisoned, before efforts to save them failed, before they came down the spring after a miserable 2012 football season.

“The whole town fell into a slump,” Hare said. “It was real sad around here. People celebrated the trees, but still missed them. We knew we could not get them back. But we knew we could start over and regrow.”

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The space where the oaks once rose is empty now, the base of the trees and the roots that remain buried beneath bark mulch, poison still lurking in the ground. Signs announce that the area is under 24-hour surveillance.

And yet the locals cannot ignore the timing. They cannot ignore how the trees came down after a winless football season in 2012 in the Southeastern Conference, how Coach Gus Malzahn returned to renovate a program as officials mapped out plans for two new trees.

Neither can they ignore the symmetry: of two miracle plays that sealed two victories in the final minutes and how they propelled Auburn to the Bowl Championship Series title game against Florida State on Monday night. Two trees. Two plays. It was all a little much.

The Phone Call

Paul Finebaum thought little, at least initially, of the man, calling himself Al from Dadeville, who phoned his radio show in late January 2011 and bragged that he had poisoned Toomer’s Oaks with the herbicide Spike 80DF. Finebaum’s show, football gospel in the South, attracted such characters, men like Al from Dadeville, actually Harvey Updyke Jr., who ended his call with “Roll, damn Tide!”

The conversation made “NBC Nightly News.” Then the police called. Homeland Security got involved. From February into March and most of April, the incident dominated Finebaum’s airwaves.

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Updyke, 62 when he first called Finebaum’s show, phoned Finebaum and his producers regularly from jail, complaining about his conditions. He wanted Finebaum to recommend a lawyer. Finebaum began to feel sorry for him. In one conversation, Finebaum said, Updyke told him “he really didn’t mean to do it,” that he had intended the whole thing as a prank. Finebaum said he gasped at the confession.

Updyke pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful damage of an animal or crop facility, but before his release last June, Finebaum secured a jailhouse sit-down. Finebaum visited on a rainy Sunday morning early that month, and he stopped on the drive over at a bookstore to buy two preseason college football magazines with Alabama quarterback A J McCarron on the cover.

Finebaum declined to divulge the contents of their conversation. He is working on a book about his time in the SEC and his career in football, and that is how he secured the interview in the first place. But he did say that Updyke fixated on the magazines. He also found Updyke to be “a fairly normal guy,” not the extremist fan he had been painted as.

Finebaum was asked if that spoke to the culture of football, especially in the South, especially when it came to the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama. He noted that many Alabama fans felt the allegations that Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was shopped to various universities after a stint in junior college tainted the Tigers’ national championship after the 2010 season. He pointed out the trip Updyke took to New Orleans and how many fellow Alabama fans wanted pictures with him.

It’s fashionable now to come down on Updyke, to treat him as an outcast,” Finebaum said. “But in Alabama it was not that shocking. There were vigils and Facebook pages and all the things that we get used to. But if you just drove down the road, any county in the state, and pulled into a Cracker Barrel, I don’t think Updyke would be considered that much of an outlier.

The Rescue Effort

Gary Keever tried to save the oaks.

Like most at Auburn, he cannot pinpoint exactly when the rolling tradition started, perhaps in the 1960s or the early ’70s, when students began to loft rolls of toilet paper into trees. Keever cannot say for sure, but as a horticulturist and university professor since 1982, he understood what the tradition meant.

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An Auburn fan heard Al from Dadeville on the radio and called the university, where no one had heard of Spike 80DF. Officials searched online. They sent a sample out for testing.

On Feb. 9, 2011, the results came back: The trees had indeed been poisoned. The levels were exceedingly high. The manufacturer told Keever a dose of 100 parts per billion was lethal in live oak; the highest of the four samples showed 51 parts per million.

The university set up a website. It held meetings. The mantra: Do no harm in remediation. That was what they expected, to be able to remediate. Keever became the spokesman. He figured that would last two weeks. It took two years — and counting.

Before Auburn could remove the contaminated soil, it used an activated charcoal to try to bind the chemical. Officials had the beds covered with tarps. They applied an antitransferent to the foliage. They did all that to slow the poison’s spread. They even washed the roots by hand.

They built two plastic buildings, about eight feet tall, around the beds, and there was Toomer’s Corner, all laid out like a hazmat site, like something from “Breaking Bad.” They vacuumed the soil. They used a machine called a Super Slurper to help take the soil out. They went four feet underground.

All along, they continued to test the soil, and all along, the tests revealed contamination. But after officials took the soil out a second time, the levels dropped significantly.

In March 2011, the leaves on one of the oaks began to yellow. That started a cycle: The leaves would yellow, brown and drop off, then green leaves would grow back in.

Reporters called Keever to ask if that meant the trees were getting healthier. Reality was the opposite. With each cycle, the new leaves were smaller and smaller.

Officials settled on a radical, last-gasp approach. They fertilized more and irrigated more and injected sugars, first a mixture of sucrose, fructose and glucose, then just sucrose, to replace the sugars the trees were no longer producing. They drilled 49 holes in each tree for the injections. But the trees began to develop vertical cracks anyway, as if they had been struck by lightning.

It felt to Keever like a dull toothache. In July 2012, arborists recommended the oaks come down.

Auburn decided the trees would be cut, but not before one final roll. That took place on A-Day, last April, after the spring football game. More than 83,000 people attended, and rather than mourn, they rolled. Keever’s wife is claustrophobic and could hardly squeeze through the crowd. The university donated thousands of rolls. Families embraced. Grown men cried. Fans walked around like mummies, engulfed in toilet paper.

Soon after, the trees went to timber. The first cuts started at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday. Fans gathered, pressed against barricades, mostly silent.

Keever stood on the plots last month. Remnants of toilet paper littered the ground.

“It’s reminiscent of watching someone die,” Keever said. “A slow process. Like hospice.”

The Rebirth

The J & M Bookstore opened in 1953, opposite Toomer’s Corner, its diagonal view blocked by the two oaks. Shirts in the display window last month said “Gus What?” and “Hey, Bama, you need a second?” in reference to Auburn’s triumph in the Iron Bowl.

Trey Johnston stood behind the counter of the family business. He described the roll he had perfected over decades: Start with a little tail at the end, grip in the middle for maximum spin. He laughed, because life was so different from last year, when “the tree was so trimmed it looked like something out of a horror movie” and business was so slow, he was putting in new carpet and applying for a bank loan.

Auburnites have long celebrated milestones at Toomer’s Corner.

“This season has been a godsend,” he said. “The two trees and the two dramatic plays. The second coming of Gus! I’m all paid up now. I’m flush.”

Auburn looked at various replacement options, among them sculptures and monuments and fake trees obviously poison proof. It conducted an online survey that received more than 10,000 responses and formed a committee and contracted a landscape architecture firm. The consensus: mighty oak trees in place once again.

Officials are in the process of selecting new trees, which is like picking out a Christmas tree. They look for certain characteristics — symmetry, where they were grown, density of roots. Nurseries in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida have offered to donate, either live oaks like the ones that once stood at Toomer’s Corner or overcup oaks like others around campus.

Dan King, the assistant vice president for facilities management, always thought a rolled corner looked like a forest after a snowstorm in his native Wisconsin. He will help lead the renovation. Plans include removing the rest of the contaminated soil in the plaza, renovating, and transporting the new trees in, although it will take years until they are stable enough to be rolled.

The city will handle its own renovation at the intersection. The initial schedule called for a completed corner by the beginning of next football season, but that seems unrealistic. Before the 2015 season is more likely.

“I’m looking forward to that day,” Keever said. “Because the trees will begin to take on the symbolism of their prior selves.”

The funny thing is what happened since the trees were poisoned. When they were cut down, their reach actually expanded. The campus branch of the United Way sold frames with a small piece of Toomer’s Oaks for charity. Soldiers in Afghanistan celebrated Auburn’s victories by rolling trees there. The golfer Jason Dufner collected acorns he said he wanted to plant in his own yard and perhaps later transport them to the corner. A group of Alabama fans — Tide for Toomer’s — raised nearly $50,000.

Everyone wanted a piece: of bark, of branch, of leaf.

Fans rolled, reluctantly at first, four wires installed at the intersection of Toomer’s Corner. On Dec. 7, when Auburn topped Missouri in the SEC title game and Michigan State upended second-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten championship contest to vault the Tigers into national championship contention, fans rolled the corner twice.

A judge ordered Updyke to pay nearly $800,000 in restitution, although the final costs of the poisoned trees will not be known for years. As Updyke left jail, his lawyer told reporters Updyke never wanted to be heard from again. He will be on probation for five years, and he is barred from attending a college sporting event or setting foot on Auburn University property.

The Enduring Tradition

Inside the university library, on the bottom floor, in the Special Collections and Archives Department, there is a cart with four boxes. They contain materials left at the final rolling: a copy of “The Giving Tree,” letters from a second-grade class in Michigan, a pompom, rolls and rolls of toilet paper decorated with “War Eagle” and “thanks for the memories” and “get well soon.”

There is a note from a student who arrived at Auburn from New England who wrote that he did not miss the winter “because snow in the south is warm, soft and 2-ply.”

There is a poster with a quote from Helen Keller: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

“What you’re seeing at Toomer’s Corner is a rebirth,” said Bo Jackson, the great Auburn running back. “Because everyone should roll Toomer’s Corner at least once.”

The trees, said David Housel, a retired athletic department employee, were never the point anyway. He compared Toomer’s Corner to Times Square, as a central gathering place, a spirit embodied. Someone who never understood that spirit, he said, would never understand how little the actual trees meant.

“That gentleman who killed those trees thought he was killing something,” Housel said. “He didn’t kill anything. He’s like an old wretch of a landlord. We might have been kicked out of our house, but we just went down somewhere else and started all over again.”

Housel was asked to describe his favorite rolling. He mentioned the national championship game.

“The next one,” he said.