A piece of World War I history was planted at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith during a ceremony last week honoring local veterans who perished in the conflict.
A two year-old willow oak was planted in Wenderoth Park on campus as a memorial tree using soil from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. UAFS was granted the tree from the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas World War I Centennial Committee, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage after a joint effort by the organizations to honor WWI veterans across the state by donating a tree to a location in each county.
During the ceremony, Carrie Mize of Fort Smith, president of the Student Veterans Organization, spoke of the impact of the war, both globally and locally.
“World War I was an unprecedented war filled with bloodshed, devastation and loss. This fiery trial, as President Wilson called it, happened 100 years ago,” Mize said. “Civilization itself hung in the balance. Even though it was distressing, this war was a fight for democracy, for the right and liberty of small nations and for peace and safety to all nations and to make the world itself at last free.”
Nearly two million Americans were sent to fight in the conflict, Mize continued, with 71,863 of them coming from Arkansas.
“Arkansans fought on the land, at sea and in the skies to defend the people of France and Belgium, suffering 2,183 casualties during this war. Three courageous Arkansans were awarded the Medal of Honor after their deaths,” Mize continued. “This tree is planted in remembrance of those who bravely and selflessly gave their lives and paved the way for many modern advances we still use in our military structures today. Let this tree be a reminder to us to uphold the values and principles these brave soldiers set before us and to look forward to peaceful and brighter futures.”
Dr. Lee Krehbiel, vice chancellor for student affairs at UAFS, served as the guest speaker at the ceremony, where he discussed his own complex relationship with the Great War as a German American and a descendant of Mennonites, who were traditionally pacifists and who were sent to dangerous battlefields during the wars to perform manual labor. His grandmother’s uncle also died during the war after being shot in the moments after an armistice and was buried in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
“When it was called off, I suspect a celebration erupted, or at least vigilance was relaxed. Communication did not travel instantaneously as news does today. As the story goes, Oron stood up, perhaps out of one of the famous long trench-lines, but a shot hit him nonetheless and he died,” Krehbiel said. “Thank you for helping me remember Oron B. Crook … Thanks for helping us remember the sacrifice of our Arkansas and other U.S. soldiers, the preciousness of our freedoms, and the need to diligently explore many options before entering into these conflicts that shatter so many lives.”
UAFS was a natural fit to plant the tree for Sebastian County given the large population of student veterans on campus, several of whom assisted in the grant opportunity through the Student Veterans Organization.
“First and foremost, anything having to do with history and military history we are very passionate about,” said Kimberley DeBar, vice president of SVO. “As soon as we heard about the project, we were 100 percent on board … For this to be a World War I Memorial, we thought that was a beautiful way to pay tribute to them and to continue that over time at UAFS. And we are the signature veteran organization on campus, so we should be on board.”
Anne Liebst, director of the Boreham Library at UAFS, applied for the grant to receive the tree and said it was a suitable memorial.
“I think it’s fantastic. It’s going to be here long after we are,” Liebst said. “And it’s a way to work with students and honor students and honor World War I veterans in Arkansas. What better way to honor the dead than with a living tree?”
About the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith
The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith is the premiere regional institution of Western Arkansas, connecting education with careers and serving as a driver of economic development and quality of place in the greater Fort Smith region. Small class sizes, dedicated faculty and staff, affordable tuition rates, and a diverse on-campus culture allow UAFS students to fully explore their areas of interest in ways that prepare them for post-graduate success academically, professionally, and personally. To find out what makes UAFS just right for you, go to www.uafs.edu.