November 20, 2019 | Matt Kucinski

Two Calvin staff members plant an oak tree on campus in front of a building.

What started as an acorn about 150 years ago on what was then known as Knollcrest Farm blossomed into a signature oak on Calvin’s campus.

“There are a lot of red oaks on campus, fairly common tree, performs well here,” said Bob Speelman, certified arborist and supervisor of landscape operations at Calvin University.

But this red oak stood its ground longer than any other tree on the 400-acre campus.

“There are some that are close [in age],” said Speelman, “but this was the largest in diameter, most massive.”

And it was the most visible … situated near the entrance to the Spoelhof University Center, the central hub for visitors to campus.

A great fall

While the big red oak that dates back to the 19th-century had some health problems in recent years, experts knew it would take very specific conditions for it to fall.

Strong winds out of the north on Friday, July 19, provided just the right conditions. 

During his regular early Saturday morning rounds, Charlie Huizinga, the semi-retired, but longtime director of grounds at Calvin, noticed some branches down around campus, but nothing significant. Then, “I looked to my left, and was like, ‘oh my, I can’t believe this.’”

The approximately 50-foot tall tree had fallen. 

“I was shocked. It’s a shocking, big loss,” said Speelman, who received a text from Huizinga that morning with the news.

Sowing seeds

While the tree falling came as a surprise, the 150-year heritage wasn’t lost that day thanks to a simple act taken more than a decade prior.

“When I was making my rounds one day more than a decade ago, I was looking for weeds around the oak and I discovered these little trees coming up,” said Huizinga. “And acorns were still attached to the root.”

So Huizinga, who had just recently purchased property about an hour north of Grand Rapids, harvested some of the little trees and transplanted those oaks to his property. He was giving them a place to grow with the intention of moving them back to campus someday.

Reaping renewal

In early November, Huizinga arranged for four of the oaks on his property to be balled up. Speelman selected the one with the best branch architecture and had it brought back to campus. (The other three oaks will be added to campus in 2020).

On November 8, the giant hole left by the great red oak in front of the Spoelhof Center was filled by one of its “acorn” kids—now a 20-foot tall maturing adolescent.

“Today, we are starting a new era of a new red oak for the future,” said Speelman while he was planting the tree. “This is in God’s hands, hopefully this tree will live 100-plus years and thrive here. I look forward to watching it grow and develop.”

Living on

Much of the red oak that fell on July 19, 2019, was preserved. In fact, a sawmill was hired in September to make remarkable products out of the tree. The tree will live on in furniture and a lot of other beautiful creations. And Charlie Huizinga has a number of other “kids” from the great oak growing on his property up in Pentwater that will likely make their return to campus as well someday.

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