On a sunny afternoon, graduating senior Casey Nichol, of New Orleans, posed in cap and gown behind the LSU Student Union as her parents took photos. Two strangers asked if she knew the significance of the oaks towering above her. Her answer was a baffled expression.
For Gary King, one of the interrogators, it confirmed what he already knew about LSU’s Memorial Oak Grove.
“There is just a tiny fraction of the student and alumni who know what this is,” King said.
Not long ago, King was one of them. Now, he wants to bring new life to LSU’s living memorial to men from the school who died in World War I.
In 1926, LSU planted 30 live oak trees south of the Parade Ground, one for each of the students and alumni who died during the United States’ involvement in the war, which ended in 1918. Almost four decades later, the Union was built, separating the Memorial Oak Grove from the Parade Ground and Memorial Tower, two of the campus’ most visible reminders of LSU’s military roots. In 1998, the LSU War Memorial, honoring all LSU students and alumni who have died or been missing in action in military actions from World War II to the present, was added to the Parade Ground.
With minimal signage, little distinguishes the Memorial Oak Grove from countless other live oaks on campus. In the middle of the grove, a vertical concrete slab with a small plaque is the most prominent marker, but its information is both sparse and inaccurate, indicating that those memorialized all served in the Army. Two were Navy men. Each tree also has a small plaque with an individual's name and date of birth and death.
“It’s the best-kept secret on campus,” said Randy Gurie, executive director of Cadets of the Ole War Skule, which promotes the contributions of LSU students and alumni who have served in the armed forces.
A biogeochemist and microbiologist, King taught an interdisciplinary course in the fall 2016 semester on the topic “Why War?” that included a focus on war memorials. When he discovered a World War I memorial was across South Campus Drive from his office in the Life Sciences Annex, he gave students extra credit on their final if they picked a tree and did research on the individual it memorialized.
That led to his own exploration. King discovered that several of the markers were in disrepair, some covered in dirt and one is so close to the Union that no one would ever notice it. A sign along Highland Road identifies the Union in bold type and the Memorial Oak Grove in smaller, lighter type.
“This is wrong,” King said. “It’s not right. It doesn’t reflect LSU to have something dedicated to part of its military history that people don’t know about, is not in great shape, does not look like a memorial grove.”
King and others formed an ad hoc committee that includes representatives from Facilities Services, LSU Planning, Cadets of the Ole War Skule, students and faculty. Facilities Services agreed to prune dead branches, eliminate ball moss and bring in mulch, ground cover and ornamental plants to freshen the look.
Gurie was an LSU freshman in 1964, when military training was mandatory for all able-bodied male freshmen and sophomores. Those cadets received extensive training on LSU’s traditions, military and otherwise, he said. Mandatory military training ended in 1969.
“We have not done what I would call an effective job of educating our students and our public,” Gurie said.
Part of the effort to do that will be restoring the plaques that mark individual trees and making them more visible to passers-by, King said. Some of them were moved in the spring to give them more prominence, said Facilities Services Director Fred Felder, and that work will continue. Other wish-list items include better signage at walkway entrances to the grove and an information kiosk.
“We’re going to have a digital footprint for the grove that will tell the story of the grove, tell the story of these guys and will continue to expand over time,” King said. “There’s not just the 30 stories of these men. There’s the stories of their families. There’s the stories of their towns. There’s the larger story of that period of time. It’s something that can be built upon.”
The plans aren’t finalized, nor has fundraising been done. A rededication of the Memorial Oak Grove is set for Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
“I want to continue to make sure we connect students with this because, No. 1, this oak grove exists because of LSU students,” King said. “They left their student life to serve or they were alumni. It begins with students. My connection with this is through students. It’s only in teaching a class that I ever got connected with this. To me, this is about all the students who come through the future. This is their LSU.”