WSU's historic Olympic oak tree gets new home on campus
Moving day for Wichita State University’s Olympic oak was March 13, a beautiful sunny Tuesday on the WSU campus. The transplant makes way for the Rhatigan Student Center renovation.
Plucked by a giant tree spade from the north end of the student center, the historic oak was trucked to Charles Koch Arena and snugged into a new hole just southwest of the arena’s main entrance.
“It’s a great location,” said George Platt, associate professor emeritus of the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs and an enthusiastic historian who was on hand for the tree’s transfer.
The small, sturdy oak is now fully leafed out and looks comfortable and unassuming in its new soil.
But the tree has a rich and patriotic history with a connection to Wichita State basketball that dates back to its mother tree and the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
So it’s no wonder Platt is pleased that the tree’s new campus site is located by the “home of Shocker basketball.” Plus, the American flag and Kansas flag are flying within just a few yards of the tree.
The story behind Wichita State’s 22-year-old tree begins 76 years ago with the advent of basketball as an Olympic sport.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics
- Basketball becomes an official Olympic sport.
- U.S. team combines McPherson (Kan.) Refiners, a Hollywood (Calif.) team and a player from the University of Washington.
- Team includes WSU (Wichita University) basketball alums Francis Johnson and Jack Ragland, and former WSU (WU) coach Gene Johnson.
- U.S. defeats Canada for the Gold Medal.
The United States also did well in other Olympic sports, Platt said. There were 24 U.S. Gold Medal wins that year.
“All of the Gold Medal winners at the summer Olympics of 1936 were given a tiny oak tree, the national tree of Germany,” said Platt.
But the U.S. athletes faced a long journey home by sea with their 24 trees stowed on board.
“By the time they got back to the United States, most of the kids didn’t care about the trees,” Platt said. “When they got to the U.S. shore they were held in customs; some were never reclaimed.”
And, apparently, no one paid any attention to what happened to the surviving trees.
Fast forward to 1980s
- Emporia State grad, McKendree College professor and 1968 Olympic decathlon coach Donald L. Holst begins search for living Olympic oaks.
- Holst raises seedlings from Olympic oak found in Connellsville, Pa. (planted by John Woodruff, winner of the 800 meter in the 1936 games).
- In spring 1990, Holst gives seedling to 1936 Olympian Francis Johnson.
- Johnson gives seedling to Wichita State.
- Wichita State Physical Plant plants the young tree.
The 1990 planting was attended by Francis Johnson and his wife, Lucille; current Physical Plant director Woody DePontier, then the university’s assistant plant director for landscaping; and then-director Darrell Smith.
The tree was planted in front of the Campus Activities Center and a temporary marker was put up indicating the second-generation Olympic tree.
“Before long the marker got knocked down, and everybody forgot what the tree was doing,” said Platt.
Memories were rattled, however, in summer 2011 with the premiere of a PBS program on Olympic oaks that WSU graduate Collin McKinney saw. That fall, McKinney, son of WSU professor emeritus James McKinney, contacted the Physical Plant and then Platt, who went to work on verifying and documenting the tree’s history.
The rest of the WSU Olympic oak story is yet to be told. Planning is under way for a dedication ceremony on Oct. 12.
This time, a permanent plaque will be installed and dedicated to the 1936 U.S. Olympic basketball team and the three participants from Wichita State: Francis Johnson, Jack Ragland and Gene Johnson.