By Jeanne Bishop
Editor’s Note: Jeanne Bishop shares a story about the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In it, Bud Welch, a father whose only daughter Julie was murdered in the bombing, describes how a tree that survived the blast became the centerpiece of the memorial, taken from Grace from the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation after the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
About three months after the bombing, Bud was driving into downtown Oklahoma City for a meeting of family members of people killed in the bombing. The topic up for discussion that night was whether to erect some kind of memorial to the victims. The family group met about four blocks away from where the Murrah building had stood.
“I was going south down Robinson and saw a bulldozer doing some work on the two parking lots near the site,” Bud said. “There was nothing in those lots except a tree. I knew Julie parked there under that tree. I did not want that tree bulldozed down.”
When Bud got to the meeting, he sought out attorney Robert Johnson, a respected lawyer who was heading up the family group, though he had not lost a family member in the bombing. “We all had so much emotion, we needed someone to help us think straight,” Bud explained.
Bud asked Johnson if he could speak to the 200 or so family members gathered there. Johnson called on Bud to address the crowd.
“I told about the tree,” Bud said. “When I went to explaining, I said, ‘It is the only thing left there that survived. All of the dead have been buried. There’s nothing else living except that one tree. I want that tree saved.’”
The group agreed.
The next day, when Bud was driving to his family farm in Shawnee, his cell phone rang. It was Robert Johnson. “Bob said, what tree are you talking about? I told him, it’s right next to an alley, near the Journal Record building. I told him the tree was ugly. It leaned toward the north because of the prevailing southerly winds. It had mistletoe all through it. It shows the brilliance of Okies that our state flower is a parasite,” Bud observed wryly.
Johnson said he would go and look at it. He called Bud back 15 minutes later, and said, “You were right when you said it was ugly.”
Some of the tree’s branches were burned from the explosion. Its bark was pockmarked with shrapnel. Johnson got ahold of some people at Oklahoma State University’s forestry department, who came down to see what the tree needed. Soon, though, care for the tree was placed in the capable hands of an urban forester, Mark Bays, who started watching over the tree like a dad watching his toddler learn to walk.
Bays grew up loving the outdoors, fishing with his grandmother and camping with his Boy Scout troop. An aptitude test he took in ninth grade cemented his choice of career: forestry. He has gone on to become the longest-serving state urban-forestry coordinator in the country. “A lot of it is spiritual,” Bays told me. “I’m at peace. I go to church every Sunday, but when I go to the forest, that’s my church.”
Bays assembled a team of arborists from around the nation to assess the tree. “The tree was broken, it was bent, just in bad shape. I knew it needed so much,” he said. “Will it survive? It was a coin toss.”
Bays told me trees are different from people; they don’t heal, they seal. “When you get a cut in your hand, you put a BAND-AID® on it and it’s good as new. When a tree is wounded, it closes over. It can recover but not completely heal. Every wound that a tree gets pretty much is with it throughout its whole life.”
Because Bays wasn’t sure the tree would make it, the first thing he did was collect seeds from the tree, so that if it died, its offspring at least would live on. The seeds are now gathered every year and turned into saplings that are given away to the public on the anniversary of the bombing.
The second thing Bays did was free the tree from the asphalt surrounding it. When a crew showed up with massive bulldozers to do the removal, though, Bays called a halt: “I had to say, slow down, we don’t know where the tree’s roots are.” He talked the workers into doing the job by hand. Later, Bays saw that the jackhammer operator who had carved away the asphalt had created a bed of dirt in the shape of the state of Oklahoma, with the tree nestled safely in the middle.
Bays was being inundated with well-meaning advice about how to save the tree. He responded with caution. “The fact that it had been able to survive in this lot—I feared if you give it too much, the tree might not be ready for it. You could kill it with kindness.”
He and his team enriched the soil—what Bays calls “good Oklahoma red clay”—and built an underground system to bring air and water to the tree’s roots. A friend inoculated the tree against the lethal Dutch elm disease.
That friend, like most everyone else, refused to accept payment for the work. “Ever since the beginning, everyone who has worked on the tree has been humbled and honored to sustain that tree’s legacy. The spirit of this tree is going to outlive anybody,” Bays said.
The elm is known now as the Survivor Tree; it got that name from the speech Bud made that first night about the tree being the only living thing that survived. I asked Bud why it mattered so much to save that tree. “To me, the tree is a symbol of Julie,” he replied.
And so it is—not just because she had parked her 1992 red Pontiac Grand Am in its shade when she went to work each day. The tree is quirky and stubborn, gentle enough to bend and strong enough to stay standing, like Julie.
Robert Johnson sees the tree as a symbol of the “resiliency, strength, and hope of humankind. Reflective of our community’s reaction to the bombing, it bent but did not break.”
The tree has become the centerpiece of the Oklahoma City memorial. An image of the tree is its logo, its symbol to the public. Johnson points to the words engraved on the memorial’s promontory surrounding the tree: “The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated. Our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”
________Taken from Grace from the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation after the Oklahoma City Bombing by Jeanne Bishop. Click here to learn more about this book.
“Readers should have tissues at hand before beginning Bishop’s affecting story. This incredible and empathetic story is a testament to the powers of forgiveness, fellowship, and redemption.” —Publishers Weekly Starred Review
The heart-stirring story of how the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and the father of her killer, Timothy McVeigh, forged an unlikely friendship and found forgiveness.
In what was to become the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City bombing was one in a long line of violent attacks that have left communities across the nation searching for healing and hope. With the soaring message of the power of love to conquer evil, Grace from the Rubble tells the intertwining stories of four captivating individuals: Julie Welch, a young professional full of promise, and Tim McVeigh, the troubled mind behind the horrific event; Bud Welch, a father whose only daughter (Julie) was murdered, and Bill McVeigh, the father of her killer.
With searing details by first-hand witnesses, including the Governor of Oklahoma, masterful storyteller Jeanne Bishop describes the suspenseful scenes leading up to that fateful day and the dramatic events afterward as one father buried his daughter and the other saw his only son arrested and tried for mass murder.
Vivid and haunting, this true story is rich with memories and beautiful descriptions of the nation’s heartland, a place of grit and love for neighbors and family. Bishop tells how murder affected her own family and led her to meet Bud and, ultimately, how she learned to see humanity amidst inhuman violence.
With compassion for all who have been touched by tragedy, this poignant narrative will touch your heart with the astonishing forgiveness that led to an extraordinary friendship. Learn more at gracefromtherubble.com.
Jeanne Bishop is a public defender, law reform advocate, and writer whose work has appeared in publications including CNN.com, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Sojourners, The Christian Century, law journals, and academic books. She lives on Chicago’s North Shore with her two sons. Connect with Jeanne at jeannebishop.com.
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