Tree-planting honors Emory's new president

By April Hunt | Feb. 9, 2017

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President Claire E. Sterk (center) was joined by Jimmy Powell, director of Engineering and External Services, and Bobbi Patterson, professor of pedagogy in the Department of Religion, to plant an elm tree on the Quad to mark Sterk's inauguration.

More than 40 species of elm are native to the Netherlands, the birthplace of Emory President Claire E. Sterk. As part of Sterk’s formal inauguration program Wednesday, she planted the Ulmus Americana, or American elm, on the Quad. It is resistant to Dutch Elm Disease but related to the 75,000 varieties that cover Amsterdam alone.

Though trees often find their way into ceremonial events, the symbolism of a tree, for this president, is powerful. The Low Countries at one time abounded with swamps, marshes and bogs. As Peter MacDonagh states in his history of street trees in Holland, “To increase arable land for food, the inventive Dutch decided to create land from scratch. Thus the Dutch, with the help of wind and trees, hand-built their country — a garden, really.”

“I find it quite fitting,” Sterk said of the eight-year-old tree planted in her honor. Earlier, in her inauguration address, the president quoted Abraham Lincoln, who noted, "Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

In that spirit, Sterk promised that this tree “will show us what Emory really stands for and who we really are.”

Sterk, Jimmy Powell, director of Engineering and External Services, and Bobbi Patterson, professor of pedagogy in the Department of Religion, installed the tree near Callaway Memorial Center.

An American elm takes about 30 years to reach a height of 70 feet, Powell says. The life span for such trees can be 200 years or more. As it grows, it will provide more than 50 feet of shade and a burst of yellow on the Quad each fall, celebrating both Sterk and Emory's commitment to sustainability.

Patterson read a poem, “Cultivate,” that she crafted for the occasion, which drew even more parallels between Emory’s first female president and the new hardwood.

It concludes:

She sinks her roots, she strives upward, she plants steadying feet
This one among many she outpours
Not to be hindered
Here — in this small rectangle of wise hearts knowledge-bound