A beloved oak tree fell. The School of Theology promises to give its wood a new life

A big oak tree
The McAfee Oak

The wood of a cherished oak tree that grew for 22 years in front of the McAfee School of Theology will be repurposed after the tree split in half and fell in August.

The oak tree was germinated from an acorn that was presented at the theology school’s dedication and planted on Mercer University’s Atlanta campus by the school’s first graduating class.

“It was planted by the first graduating class, growing as the school was growing. Symbolically, it was a wonderful thing,” said former Dean Dr. Alan Culpepper.

Current Dean Dr. Greg DeLoach is looking into ways to reuse the wood. Ideas include building a bench and having an alumnus, who is also a woodturner, turn the wood into pens or bowls.

“We’re going to repurpose every bit of it that we can, and then we’ll plant a new tree there because I think part of the metaphor is everything has a season,” he said. “Things live and they die, and they’re born anew.

“That’s very theological. You always deal with life and death, but you carry on. So, we’ll plant a new tree there for the next generation.”

Planting the ‘McAfee Oak’

Even though the School of Theology admitted its first class in fall 1996, with so much going on, a formal dedication wasn’t held until the following year.

Hundreds came out for the event, including former President Jimmy Carter who spoke at a luncheon.

Dr. Daniel Vestal, then-executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also was among the speakers. At the end of his remarks, he called Dr. Culpepper to the podium and gave him an acorn that he had picked up while preaching that past Sunday in Madison.

“He said, ‘The school is like an acorn being planted and will grow into a strong tree,’” Dr. Culpepper recalled.

The plaque next to the McAfee Oak

Dr. Culpepper gave the acorn to Pete Pike of Pike Nurseries and asked him to germinate the acorn. Pike did so, and in spring 1999, the first 10 graduates planted the seedling that grew into the “McAfee Oak,” as it was called.

“Naturally, we were joking with Pete Pike at that time, saying, ‘Are you sure this tree came from this acorn?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, it is,’” Dr. Culpepper recalled. “We said, ‘Well, how would anybody know?’ He pointed up and said, ‘He will know. He will know.’”

As the tree grew, it diverted into three trunks, “which may be nice theology, to have the Trinity, but it made for a weak tree,” Dr. Culpepper said.

The diverging trunks created a hollow place in the center of the tree, which filled with water and, over time, led to rot, said Dr. DeLoach, who pondered the meaning of the tree’s demise on his blog.

Bringing new life

Dr. DeLoach has been in touch with alumnus the Rev. William Deal, who earned his Master of Divinity from the School of Theology in 2012, about turning wood from the McAfee Oak into pens or bowls.

Deal is director of pastoral care at Westminster Canterbury of Lynchburg, a continuing care retirement community in Virginia, and has been turning wood as a hobby for several years. This year, he made fountain pens out of olive wood from the Holy Land for students in the Master of Theological Studies program.

He was among the many students who over the years have sat in the shade of the McAfee Oak.

“I remember sitting under that tree and playing cornhole out by the tree and looking out the window from class and seeing that tree,” he said.

Deal said he likes to work with wood that has a story or a meaning, and the wood from the McAfee Oak fits that bill. His years at the theology school were a time of learning and discernment, and he found a community that supported him both academically and personally.

He said he’s looking forward to making something new out of the wood from the tree.

“As a School of Theology, I think it’s appropriate to find the grace in all situations, to bring new life to something that is no longer living as we knew it,” he said.


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Jennifer Falk is director of digital communications at Mercer. She edits and writes feature stories for The Den and examines web data and analytics to drive content decisions. She also creates and supervises the creation of content for primary University web pages and e-newsletters.