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College Bids Farewell to Beloved Oak on California Campus

Posted: July 2, 2020

Yesterday, Thomas Aquinas College, California, was forced to say goodbye to a beloved campus landmark — the stately oak tree that once stood in the center of the academic quadrangle, just before Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel.

“For 30 years, we have been fighting a losing battle to preserve that tree, which was decaying throughout,” says Vice President for Operations Mark Kretschmer. “But after a one-ton limb fell near a student walkway last fall, it seemed that we probably wouldn’t be able to keep it any longer. An independent arborist confirmed our concerns, and the county approved its removal.”

Standing 36 feet high with a canopy that spread nearly double that length, the quercus agrifolia provided much-needed shade for those crossing the walkway that passed beneath it. Because its trunk had rotted out, the tree’s age could no longer be determined, but arborists believe it to have been at least 80 years, and possibly much more than that.

Whatever its age, the tree was well established when Thomas Aquinas College moved from its first, temporary campus to the Ferndale Ranch property in 1978. Twelve years later, when the College erected the first building on what would later become the academic quadrangle, St. Augustine Hall, the tree was already failing. “It had only a little canopy and just a few branches,” says Peter L. DeLuca, a founder of the College and its former vice president for finance and administration.

“But the tree was the only thing growing down there, and we wanted to keep it,” Mr. Deluca adds. So the College hired a tree surgeon who was able to nurse it to health. “It eventually came back and prospered and even grew new limbs.”

For the next 20 years, the oak held strong until sometime about 10 years ago, when powrful winds downed one of its limbs. The College thus hired experts to trim it back and lighten its branches as much as possible. “We have been doing that every couple of years ever since,” says Mr. DeLuca. Last October, however, that strategy proved no longer tenable when a limb, weighing more than 2,000 lbs., fell onto the academic quadrangle. “Thank God no one was there,” says Mr. Kretschmer. “But that branch gave us reason to think that even aggressive pruning wouldn’t be enough to keep the tree safe anymore.”

The College then brought to campus a professional arborist who scanned the tree and took core samples from its trunk as part of a thorough evaluation of its prospects for survival. “Inspection of the [branch] failure revealed advanced decay extending into the trunk,” the arborist wrote in his report. The tree “could harm students,” he continued — a problem for which there are “no ways to alleviate through reasonable modifications.” As such, the arborist concluded, “developments support removal of this protected tree.” The Ventura County Planning Division, which must permit the removal of any oak tree beyond a certain size on private property, concurred.

And so before students return to campus for the upcoming High School Summer Program, work crews have felled and removed the tree, leaving only a void in the quadrangle where it once stood. What will replace the tree remains to be determined. “We are still evaluating the options,” says Mr. Kretschmer.

“I have no doubt that our alumni and students will be sad to see the tree go,” remarked Mr. Kretschmer. “It was a favorite campus landmark.”

Oak tree on the California quadrangle
Kathleen Murphy (’16) on integrated curriculum

“I think about the entire world differently since I have come here. I have learned certain truths, whether in the natural sciences or philosophy, that I never would have imagined I could know.”

– Kathleen Murphy (’16)

Cheshire, Connecticut

“I am full of admiration for what the College, its founders, its leadership, its faculty and staff, and its students and alumni have achieved.”

– George Cardinal Pell

Archbishop of Sydney

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