Archived Story

Demise of trees revives memories

Published 12:34pm Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I can’t remember my first visit to Auburn.

I don’t remember the first game I ever watched in Jordan Hare.

And no matter how much I try, I can’t recall the first time I ever threw toilet paper after an Auburn victory high into the more than 100-year-old oaks of Toomer’s Corner.

But the day I first learned of Harvey Updyke will be forever etched into my memory.

I was a senior at Auburn and doing my internship at The Madison Record in Madison, Ala. My editor, Austin Phillips, was a fellow Auburn alum.

One morning Austin called me in his office and showed me the Facebook profile of the man who identified himself as ‘Al from Dadeville.’

The man who admitted on a syndicated radio station to poisoning Auburn’s beloved oak trees was holding his grandchild in his profile picture.

I found it so ironic that a man who could love a child would even suggest doing such a cruel and vicious thing. My mind raced to my own grandfather and our memories at Toomer’s.

Updyke’s alleged crime (he is currently awaiting trial in the Lee County Detention Center) would change a tradition with roots dating back to long before my grandfather’s days as a student at Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

API would not be renamed Auburn University until 1960, a year after my mother was born, but my grandfather remained a lifelong loyal fan – we buried him with his Auburn baseball hat.

He vividly recalled his days living in a boarding house on Armstrong Street; he loved to point out that the KA house wasn’t nearly as glamorous in his day; and one of his greatest loves was strolling around Toomer’s Corner.

He taught me the history of Samford Hall while I was still small enough to sit in his lap, never knowing that my future husband would ask me the greatest question of my life on its lawn.

When I was accepted into Auburn University, he acted like I’d received a full ride to Harvard. He immediately wrote the $200 deposit check and said nothing had ever given him so much joy. He beamed with pride as he visited my freshman year apartment, and I would have given anything to know then that he’d never watch me graduate.

He passed away in April 2010.

He missed watching Auburn win its second national championship by nine months, and he missed my graduation from Auburn by a year.

But thankfully, he also missed the entire tree poisoning tragedy.

My grandfather was a true Southern gentleman – the kind of man who wore an Auburn polo and watch, not named his entire family some version of Auburn, tigers, blue or orange.

He supported his Tigers, win or lose, with grace. He was famous for watching some tough losses and at the end saying, ‘Well, that’s all,  folks. We’ll play again next week.’

The idea that someone would intentionally harm something belonging to someone else would have bothered him to his core.

I can only imagine him saying, ‘Baby, what kind of an idiot would poison trees?’

I miss him daily, but I thank God that wasn’t something he had to endure. I’m glad in his day there was a little less hatred and ignorance in the world.

As I drove through the familiar intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue this weekend, I studied the Toomer’s oaks. The branches have been cut back, and a barricade has been erected around them, but even in their fragile state they still seem so regal.

Auburn University has announced the final day to roll Toomer’s Corner will be April 20. I will be there with toilet paper in hand. I hope you will be too.

To all the generations and members of the Auburn Family: War Eagle.

Pemberton is a staff writer for The Outlook.