CHARLESTON, Ill. — Marsha Gray always receives a silent welcome from a tall greeter when she comes to work into Eastern Illinois University's Old Main administrative building.
"That oak tree is like your greeter when you get here. It makes this place so homey. It welcomes you," said Gray, an Eastern payroll office employee.
Over the past two years, Gray and her co-workers have watched the big oak declining. Half of the branches are full of leaves, like every spring, while the other half are as bare, except for a few dead leaves, as in the middle of January. There are no acorns or even spring droppings from the branches.
They fear the tree, an old friend with its low-hanging cradle branches and a 61-inch-wide trunk, is dying.
"I really miss the droppings from the tree. You'd be walking by it and there they were each spring. If that tree dies then Old Main, our castle, won't be the same," said Merry Toberman, another payroll department employee, whose office is in the castle-like building built more than a century ago.
The huge burr oak, known as a MacNab's Oak species, is facing a fateful decision this summer — either trim back dead branches or face complete removal before the fall semester starts. New evidence is present that the tree may have a fatal prognosis.
"We're working to get on the agenda of the President's Council in the next two or three weeks," said David Crockett of Eastern's facilities planning and management department. "We want to talk about what the options are at this point.
"If a significant part of the tree is dead, then it will not make a comeback. So we have a 'retirement plan' by taking it down. We could also cut back the dead side and try to work out the remaining live branches."
Crockett said both options will be hard for the university community, but one factor stands above any others.
"There is a safety issue we have to address here. If this continues the branches could become brittle and someone could be hurt if branches come down during a storm or after an ice storm," Crockett said. "I don't think the oak would want to hurt any student with a falling branch."
But Crockett and others involved in caring for the big oak realize this is not just another tree at Eastern, which has hundreds of trees on its park-like campus.
"This is such a icon. It's a really big thing for campus," Crockett said. "A lot of people from Eastern identify with that tree."
It is probably the oldest living thing on campus. The age of the tree is estimated between 250 to 300 years.
"When they were building Old Main this tree was more than 150 years old. Yes, the workers probably sat under it for shade when they were eating lunch," Crockett said.
But what nature gives, nature can take away. An ugly scar on the tree's east side shows how a lightning bolt jolted the oak from its top branches to its roots nearly 10 years ago.
A metal cap was added to a damaged branch stump and anti-lightning cables were attached for protection from future strikes (methods used on landmark trees on famous golf courses).
"Someone who saw that lightning strike said the ground shook around the tree. So it might have hurt the root system. We have witnessed fungi growth on the roots now," Crockett said.
Many experts, arborists and science professors have confirmed the big oak is not suffering from a tree disease that can be overcome, such as "oak decline" and "oak wilt."
That means the old tree might be dying, but the university has saved some of its acorns to renew the tree whenever it leaves this world.
Justin Perry of the university grounds department showed the 31 oak seedlings shaded in a fenced-in corner to protect them from overbearing sunlight and hungry squirrels or rabbits.
As the big oak's fate reaches a climax, many of its offspring have been sprouting. They were hand-picked from the branches before the squirrels carted them off.
"Some of them just sprouted recently with the warm weather. You can see the acorns there," Perry said.
A short distance from the big oak is another part of the second generation. A tall tree with its signature oak leaves and slender trunk came from a seedling growing in the nearby flower beds at Old Main. Nature put it there either through a fortunate bounce of an acorn or a busy squirrel.
It has a good start and it is receiving tender loving care from university workers.
"We take really good care of that tree. We don't want anything to happen to it," Crockett said with a smile.
Maybe some day the prince oak will tower above the ramparts of Old Main like its father.
Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette, http://www.jg-tc.com