Live Oak Society membership criteria: You must be a tree

by Mary Tutwiler

Edwin Lewis Stephens, UL Lafayette's first president, had a passion for live oaks that he spread over his campus, imparted in his students and shared across the state.

Edwin Lewis Stephens, UL Lafayette's first president, had a passion for live oaks that he spread over his campus, imparted in his students and shared across the state.

"On Sundays, he and his wife would ride along the old Spanish Trail before the highways came and destroyed so many trees," says Coleen Landry, chairman of the Live Oak Society. "He said, We need to protect these trees and show people how beautiful they are.'"

According to UL's website, he planted about 100 trees around the UL campus from acorns he collected himself. He cultivated trees and then sold them to other universities around the state, and according to the site, some of the most beautiful oaks around the state's higher education facilities can be credited to Stevens. In 1934, he also started the unique Live Oak Society.

To obtain membership to the society, one must have a girth of 8 feet or more and one must be an oak. The organization began with 43 members chosen by Stephens. Today, there are 6,276 members in 14 states registered with the organization, which is under the direction of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation Inc. The only human member of the society is the honorary chair, currently held by Landry, who registers the trees.

Recently, members of the society have had to face the heartbreaking news that soon four of their brothers will fall at the very place their beloved organization began - UL's campus. Read more in The Independent Weekly news story "Paving Paradise."

"There are many ways to work around live oaks. I do not know all the circumstances around the removal of these oaks, but I do know that it goes against everything that Dr. Stephens believed," says Landry. "The live oak is unique because it takes so long to grow. It takes 50 years for it really to become a beauty, and then it can live to be 2,000 years old. You can replace the tree you cut down, but you won't have the one beauty you lost."

According to Landry, many of the oaks on campus are registered, but because records were mismanaged in earlier years, it's hard to know whether the endangered trees were ever registered to the organization, which protects its members at all costs. Landry tells a story of one 500-year-old oak named Old Dickery, which has been saved twice through the society's efforts.

"I saw the red x marking the tree during the construction of a highway. I took a picture and sent it to Gov. [Mike] Foster, and he stopped construction that day and told them to find another way. Just recently, the tree was endangered again by the Corps of Engineers, but they are now digging under the tree to complete their work," she says. "There are people willing to go the extra mile."

For every one of the 6,276 members of the Live Oak Society, there is a sponsor to watch over each tree. Landry says although these trees may not have had official sponsors, they are being spoken for by members and representatives of garden clubs throughout the states where oaks are registered via letters to President Joseph Savoie. She also said at least one UL grad stationed in Iraq signed the online petition to save the oaks, illustrating that the concern for these trees runs far and wide.

"This is part of our Southern heritage. They aren't a dime a dozen; they only grow in 16 states. They're called live oaks because they never lose their leaves; they're a living force year-round," says Landry. "I think anybody who willingly destroys a live oak will be haunted the rest of this life."