Sweet Briar’s beloved Fletcher Oak lives on in academic mace

Posted on September 21, 2017 by Jennifer McManamay

Sun setting behind the Fletcher Oak.
It happened around 10 a.m. on Aug. 9, 2005. For members of the Sweet Briar College community it was the passing of a dear friend. As the news quickly spread, people came to pay their respects.

The Fletcher Oak — still in full summer foliage and festooned with clusters of green acorns — had fallen. Since 1906, students, faculty and staff had passed beneath the massive canopy, taking comfort from its imposing presence. In 1991, Mary Oliver, then the College’s Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, wrote a poem about it: “There is a tree here so beautiful it even has a name. …”

The red oak, named for the College’s founding family, stood on the northwest corner of Fletcher Hall. It was at least 200 years old and even on its last day, sprawled across a rain-drenched Sweet Briar Drive, its grandeur and magnitude were on display. The jumbled branches dwarfed the workers who scrambled over them with chainsaws and trimmers to clear it from the road.

Over the years, bits and pieces of the beloved tree were carved into pens, a decorative bench, key chains and other trinkets. But some of the harvested wood remains, tucked away in a barn on campus. From these remnants comes the Fletcher Oak’s latest contribution — and perhaps its most significant — to the Sweet Briar story: a ceremonial mace handcrafted by woodturner Tom Boley. The elaborate piece will be used for the first time at the inauguration of President Meredith Jung-En Woo on Sept. 22, 2017.

The Sweet Briar College Mace is a gift from a group of unnamed donors to celebrate the investiture of the College’s 13th president. It is marked with the following inscription:

Crafted with wood from the Fletcher Oak
First used at the Inauguration of President Meredith Jung-En Woo
September 22, 2017
Given in honor of the Alumnae of the college, who kept the Faith

An academic mace is a symbol of an institution’s authority to confer a degree. It traces its history to the medieval battle mace, a weapon of war and, again, representative of authority. A king’s or queen’s scepter is similarly a symbol of authority.

Each element of the Sweet Briar Mace represents something significant to the College.

Sweet Briar College academic mace

Starting at the bottom, the small ball at the tip of the tailpiece represents Sweet Briar’s origin; the widening of the tailpiece represents its ongoing growth.

The large ring ascending from the base reflects the core curriculum of a liberal arts education centered on students, on learning, on thinking and on doing.

Three rings below the shaft represent the College’s newly created “centers of excellence” that make up the curriculum: Engineering, Science and Technology in Society; Human and Environmental Sustainability; and Creativity, Design and the Arts.

The shaft is enclosed by five flutes along the sides, representing the four undergraduate classes and the graduate degree program.

The five upper rings surrounding the student body represent growth in writing, speaking, critical thinking, proficiency in areas of study, and acquired life skills and attributes, including leadership, confidence, resilience and adaptability.

The engraved collar between the shaft and the upper section commemorates the inauguration of President Woo and honors the alumnae of the College.

The ball at top of the shaft represents the board, faculty and staff, who have significant influence on students in their academic journey, and holds medallions with the seal of Sweet Briar College.

Just above it are two rings representing the College and the alumnae, which are joined together always. The pointed finial at the top points to Sweet Briar’s future.

The finished piece is 44 inches, with a 5-inch medallion at the top. It was made with care befitting Tom Boley’s reverence for the wood and the story behind it.

“The Sweet Briar mace is No. 51 for me,” said Boley, who lives and works near Manhattan, Kan. “While for me it is a business, I also think it is really special making something like this for colleges and universities, which should last well over a hundred years.”

The alumna who commissioned the mace explained to him what the tree had meant to the campus community.

“I have had a couple schools ask to incorporate a piece of a campus tree in their mace and it has worked well,” he said. “It is quite a responsibility, as you know. Using wood from the Fletcher Oak has made this one pretty special.”

Coincidentally, red oak is one of his favorites to work with. “[It] is a good wood for turning, a wood which everyone loves, and a wood with a very attractive grain pattern,” he said.

Boley has been a woodturner since 1995. Making maces is a specialty and one of the wood projects he enjoys most. He also teaches classes and offers demonstrations to woodturning clubs around the Midwest through his business named — not coincidentally — Red Oak Hollow Lathe Works.

Fletcher Oak

There is a tree here so beautiful it even has a name. Every morning, when it is still dark, I stand under its branches. They flow from the thick and silent trunk. One can’t begin to imagine their weight. Year after year they reach, they send out smaller and smaller branches, and bunches of flat green leaves, to touch the light.

Of course this has consequences. Every year the oak tree fills with fruit. Just now, as it is September, the acorns are starting to fall.

I don’t know if I will ever write another poem. I don’t know if I will live for a long time yet, or even a little while.

But I am going to spend my life wisely. I’m going to be happy, and frivolous, and useful. Every morning, in the dark, I gather a few acorns, and imagine inside of them, the pale oak trees. In the spring, when I go away, I’ll take some of them with me, to my own country, which is a land of sun and restless ocean and moist woods. And I’ll dig down, I’ll hide each acorn in a cool place in the black earth.

To rise like a slow and beautiful poem. To live a long time.

“Fletcher Oak” from “WHITE PINE: Poems and Prose Poems” by Mary Oliver. Copyright 1994 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Mary Oliver was the Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar in 1991, when she wrote this prose poem. Oliver has won the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, and currently resides in Florida.