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The Roosevelt Oak

President Theodore Roosevelt at Pomona College

President Theodore Roosevelt at Pomona College

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt helped plant a small tree on the Pomona College campus that came to be known as the Roosevelt Oak, a tree that would live for the next 70 years in front of Pearsons Hall on the Pomona campus.

Or would it?

The tree-planting took place after a speech by the president on May 8, 1903, to an estimated 10,000 residents of the Inland Valley. After booming out a 25-minute message to those on the campus lawn, Roosevelt turned the symbolic spade of dirt where the tree would be planted.

Seventy years passed, and the tree grew up, grew out, and grew old. When gardeners determined that the venerable oak was dying and needed to be removed, officials were concerned over the potential public relations problem of removing such a revered and historic campus landmark. So it was decided that a crew should remove the tree in the dead of night.

Strangely enough, no one seemed to miss it -- until a few weeks later, when a letter from an elderly alumna arrived at the Alumni Office, noting that she has been passing by the campus and had noticed the tree's absence.

Even more strangely, she seemed to think it was funny. At the time of Roosevelt's speech, she explained, her husband had been working as a gardener at Pomona while he was a student there. Just two weeks after the tree was planted, College officials had discovered, to their horror, that the sapling that marked the most historic day in the College's history seemed to be dying. So they did the logical thing. In the dead of night, they pulled out the original Roosevelt oak and quietly replaced it with a substitute -- a horticultural fraud that would endure for 70 years.

One hundred years exactly after Roosevelt's speech, Pearsons Hall underwent a complete renovation, and the grounds where the old oak once stood have undergone new landscaping. So far as we know, however, none of the work was done after midnight.