The Oxford Tree Legend: Leaving a Legacy

College Dining Hallby Kent Hutchison

Howdy folks, life is short – enjoy your coffee. Today I want to share with you a message about leaving a legacy.

Founded in 1379, New College, Oxford is one of the oldest Oxford colleges. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with huge oak beams across the top, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This concern was reported to the College Council, which met the news with some dismay, beams this large were now very hard, if not impossible to come by. “Where would they get beams of that caliber?” they worried.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands.

These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the main college campus itself for some years and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry, it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became infested with beetles because oak beams always become infested in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story, one which raises an immediate question, “What about the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted and protected?”

The answer to this is both yes and no. The truth of the story is that there was probably no single patch of trees assigned to the beams. It was standard practice for the Foresters to plant oaks, hazel, and ash. While they would harvest the Hazel and Ash every twenty years or so, they allowed the oaks to grow quite large for use in major construction work. (The oaks were also occasionally used in shipbuilding.)Additionally, the trees from which the oaks used to rebuild the hall came from land that was not acquired by the college until 1441, nearly sixty years after the hall was originally built, and the roof of the hall had already rebuilt once before in 1786 using pitch pine timbers, because the large oak timber was apparently unavailable.

The answer to the question, have new oaks been planted, is probably. Somewhere on the land owned by the New College are oaks that are, or will one day, be worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is in this management by the Forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story is perhaps more of a legend than factual, the idea of replacing and managing resources for the future, and the lesson in long-term thinking is not.

What a wonderful opportunity we have as leaders to leave a legacy for the future.

Every one of us is going to leave a legacy. It just depends on what kind. So what kind of legacy do you want to leave? I encourage you to think about it because knowing how you want to be remembered helps you decide how to live and work today.

Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas once said, “I have the labor to perform and the seed to sow, but my successors shall reap the harvest.”

Just like the founders of New Oxford College with the planting of the oaks; and similar to Stephen F. Austin and 300 families who traveled to Texas to form a new nation, what legacy are you going to leave?