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A self-described tomboy, Erin Lowder Gardiner hated dresses. She never wore them. Not to school. Not even to church. But in 1993, when she was chosen by her school to

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A self-described tomboy, Erin Lowder Gardiner hated dresses. She never wore them. Not to school. Not even to church. But in 1993, when she was chosen by her school to

A self-described tomboy, Erin Lowder Gardiner hated dresses. She never wore them. Not to school. Not even to church. But in 1993, when she was chosen by her school to represent Stanly County at a ceremony celebrating the bicentennial of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her mother put her foot down.

“It was a beige-colored dress with pastel flowers on it,” Gardiner remembers. “It had a little lace collar and poofy sleeves.” To add insult to injury, her mom made her wear tights to cover up the bruises and scratches from her softball-playing exploits.

Erin Lowder as a sixth grader with Dean Smith at UNC Chapel Hill

Sixth graders like Erin Lowder each received a Davie Poplar sapling and a handshake from Dean Smith. Photography courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Despite the perceived indignity, Gardiner was thrilled to participate. One hundred and four sixth-grade students representing every county in North Carolina were each going to be sent home with a sapling from the famed Davie Poplar, an iconic tree located in the heart of the campus. On top of that, they were going to get to shake hands with Dean Smith.

“Our family were huge Carolina fans,” Gardiner says. “That’s what we did as a family — sat around and watched Carolina basketball.”

The Davie Poplar was likely already more than 100 years old in 1793, when the cornerstone was laid nearby for North Carolina’s — and the nation’s — first public university. A year earlier, university founder William Davie and a committee were said to have gone in search of the right location for the school. After a tiring day, they saw the massive poplar and decided that it would be a good place to rest and enjoy a picnic. Having restored themselves in the shade of the tree, they deemed the spot also worthy of a new university. The story is a myth, but the Davie Poplar remains a living legend, symbolizing North Carolina’s enduring commitment to public education.

Davie Poplar blossom

Fittingly, the seed of the idea to propagate the Davie Poplar for the bicentennial was germinated at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. When former Director Peter White and his team proposed the project to the bicentennial committee, someone suggested a twist: Why not propagate enough trees to distribute them to all 100 counties, demonstrating the university system’s commitment to the entire state? Sixth graders were selected as representatives because, upon graduation, they would become the Class of 2000 — representing a continuing legacy of public education into the new millennium.

Soon after, tarps were spread beneath the magnificent Davie Poplar. Tree climbers shinnied up into the canopy and shook loose the seeds, which helicoptered to the ground. From those seeds, hundreds of saplings were raised in time for the event, an occasion that White remembers with great fondness. He had been tapped to speak on that day and found inspiration for his words in a familiar place.

Peter White leans against the Davie Poplar tree on UNC Chapel Hill's campus.

Peter White, then director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, has fond memories of UNC’s bicentennial ceremony. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

“I went out to the Davie Poplar and sat under it for a while until some thoughts came to me,” he says. “It was so much fun to think about how to talk about this tree.”

White delivered his remarks under the spreading arms of the Davie Poplar. The flags of 100 North Carolina counties waved in the cool October breeze. Hundreds of guests — children, parents, faculty, students, and alumni — filled McCorkle Place. “You know how some things in life you have mixed emotions about?” White says. “Well, this event just had pure joy associated with it. To see all those kids and their parents there. I think of the faces of the children and Dean Smith getting into the spirit of it. He was clearly glad to be a part of it.”

Kedrick Perry will never forget that day either. As a sixth grader from Oak City (population 266) who represented Martin County, the trip to Chapel Hill was transformative. “The whole day was an overwhelming, blessed blur,” says Perry, who now serves as the chief equity officer for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. As he toured the campus that fall day with his mother, Linda, and his school principal and mentor, Dr. Ernest A. Brooks Jr., his world expanded in ways that he still recalls with reverence and amazement. “I heard languages I’d never heard before. I saw people dressed in ways that were different from what I saw in eastern North Carolina. It felt like another world. For me, it was like the doors had opened up.”

Sixth grader Kedrick Perry and Dean Smith at UNC Chapel Hill

Kedrick Perry took his sapling home to Martin County. Photography courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Six years later, Perry toured several prospective colleges before selecting Carolina. “It felt like I was coming home,” he says. After earning a BA in English, he went on to receive his master’s degree in public administration from another school in the UNC System — North Carolina State University — before earning his doctorate at the University of Virginia.

Perry credits his mom, his aunt Patricia Toler, his grandparents, his teachers, and the support he received from his hometown for his success. “I will always be grateful to the people in Martin County who guided me,” he says. “I’m proud to be from Oak City and eastern North Carolina.”

Today, he rubs shoulders with Nobel laureates and the CEOs of some of the largest tech companies in the world. He marvels at the journey on which his education has taken him, which includes stints at the University of California, Berkeley, and Loyola University in New Orleans. “I remember being at home in the yard, making mud pies,” he says with a laugh, “and now I’m here in Boston.”

Davie Poplar Blossom

Education has been just as important in Erin Gardiner’s life. Like the “baby Davie” she planted with her classmates, she remains firmly planted in the soil that generations of her family have occupied in Stanly County.

Gardiner remembers a sixth-grade class that was close-knit. And she was determined that all of them would be a part of the tree planting when she returned home. “Our principal approved a field trip for all of us to go, and everyone took part in digging the hole and shoveling in the dirt.”

Stanly County’s Davie Poplar offspring has pride of place in front of the Stanly County Agri-Civic Center in Albemarle. It has grown right along with Gardiner and her classmates, and has become an enduring touchstone.

“It reminds me that we are all connected, and that I was part of something bigger than me.”

“It’s right in the middle of the county,” Gardiner says. “Our arts events take place there at the civic center. That’s where I went to my prom. When our graduation ceremonies were held there in 2000, we all gravitated to that tree to take pictures.” Married now and with two children, Gardiner lives a mile from the Davie Poplar offspring and looks for it every time she passes by. “It reminds me that we are all connected,” she says, “and that I was part of something bigger than me.”

Like Kedrick Perry, Gardiner understood the importance of an education. Her mom, Karen, was a teacher. So were her aunt and four of her cousins. She majored in anthropology, archaeology, and history at UNC Charlotte. “I tried to fight being a teacher,” says Gardiner, who well understood the challenges of a career in education. “But after I got out, I knew that’s what I wanted to be.” Today, she teaches science at Stanly STEM Early College and is celebrating her 20th year as an educator. Along the way, she’s won Teacher of the Year honors at two different schools.

There is no record of how many Davie Poplar offspring have survived. In addition to the 104 saplings distributed to the students, Peter White and his team propagated several hundred others, a handful of which were given to alumni and planted across the state. But it’s a good bet that many of them are flourishing just like the Davie Poplar, which has had its share of trials and tribulations: a lightning strike in 1873, a windstorm in 1902 that tore off large branches, and a massive pruning project in 1961 that removed more than 16,000 pounds of limbs.

Early tulip poplar at UNC Chapel Hill

Legend holds that after finding respite in the shade of this tulip poplar, William Davie declared it the site of our first state university. Photography courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

It’s a good bet, too, that many of the students entrusted with planting those trees are leading lives like Gardiner and Perry. While the trees are symbols of a great public university system, Gardiner and Perry are inspiring examples of the difference that this kind of education can make, not only in their own lives but also in the lives of the students, scientists, and researchers whom they touch through their respective careers.

Thirty years ago, during his speech at the bicentennial event, Peter White suggested that the Davie Poplar and its offspring hold a lesson for all of us, one that remains true today: “What you plant can last.”

That’s not to say that all things are meant to have a long and proud history. Take Gardiner’s bicentennial celebration dress. Did she ever wear it again? She can’t be 100 percent certain, but, she says with a laugh, “I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”

Davie Poplar
204 East Cameron Avenue
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Calling All Baby Davies: Do you know where a Davie Poplar descendant is located in your county? UNC wants to know how it’s doing! Submit a status report and photo at go.unc.edu/daviepoplar.

A Legend Grows

A tulip poplar growing outside of Brevard Middle School in Transylvania County

Transylvania County’s “baby Davie” continues to thrive at Brevard Middle School. photograph by Mike Hawkins

As a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Mike Hawkins knew all about the Davie Poplar — it was his neighbor when he bunked in Old East. But for years, he didn’t know that there was a baby Davie in his home county of Transylvania. While serving as a county commissioner, he attended a meeting in which the bicentennial project came up. Yet no one knew where the tree was.

“It took some digging,” Hawkins says, “but we found out that it was at Brevard Middle School.”

In fact, it’s now about middle-school age (tulip poplars can live to be 400 years old). It stands about 80 feet tall with a tapered canopy and abundant branches that reach down to within 10 feet of the base of the trunk. It’s something to be proud of, Hawkins says: “We’re divided in so many ways, but this is something that binds us together. When you’re talking about the Davie Poplar, you’re really talking about the genealogy of the state and the university.”

For Hawkins, that theme of genealogy possesses a personal resonance. According to legend, a couple who kisses on the bench beneath the Davie Poplar will marry. Hawkins’s daughter, Allison, was a Morehead Scholar at Carolina. Her now-husband, Thomas Willauer, another Carolina grad, proposed to her near the Davie Poplar in 2016. Eight years later, they have two children. Jack and James are too young to know it yet, but their parents and grandparents are sure to educate them about the fact that they are part of two family trees — one literal and one figurative — and that they can be plenty proud to belong to both.

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This story was published on Feb 14, 2024

Brad Campbell

In addition to being a regular contributor to Our State, Brad Campbell is a storyteller and a winner of multiple Moth StorySLAM competitions.