The Friendship Oak - A Symbol of Strength

by Shelia White

It was only wind and water. Wind and water that destroyed a century of God's work. Wind and water that destroyed manmade structures that have stood the most violent of storms. Yet, one thing remained. 

Friendship Oak Post Katrina

The beautiful Gulf Park campus of The University of Southern Mississippi is positioned in what many called paradise – sixty-seven acres of oak-laden grounds in Long Beach, Mississippi.

At the southern edge of campus, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, lives a magnificent live oak tree believed to be more than 500 years old. This is the Friendship Oak.

The Friendship Oak has served this campus well. Faculty have held classes in the platform that rests in the security of its limbs. Weddings have been held under its canopy. Tour buses stop daily to witness its massive strength and beauty.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina unleashed her fury on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Through the violent winds and water that ravaged this peaceful campus, Friendship Oak has survived.
I am amazed at its strength. As a child growing up in this quiet neighborhood, I climbed its limbs; I marveled at its beauty.

As reports came in on the tremendous storm damage, I wondered about Gulf Park and my friend. Three days after Katrina I am able to make my way to the campus.

Friendship Oak Post Katrina Through Hardy Hall Window Many buildings are heavily damaged. Many no longer exist. The three multi-story buildings that face the Gulf of Mexico tell the story of Katrina's fury. These structures, built in the early 1900s, are badly beaten. The first floor of each has been washed through and through. Offices, records, history have all been destroyed.

Piles of debris make my journey difficult. Yet, as I turn the corner I see my old friend. Standing tall and proud. Looking naked in the scorching south Mississippi sun. Its bark is warm and, as I rub my hands across a limb, I am overwhelmed with emotion.

Friendship Oak has survived. So much is gone, yet my old friend remains.

Its endurance is symbolic of this community. We are tattered and torn but we will thrive again. We have strength that will overcome this catastrophe.

Eventually, new leaves will adorn this magnificent giant oak tree, just as a new economy will grow in this community. Friends will again visit to witness the beauty of the Friendship Oak, just as friends will again visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast to witness our strength, determination and beauty.

Shelia White is director of University Communications at the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus, where she has worked since 1977. She is a native of Long Beach, Miss. Photos courtesy of Tim Isbell, The Sun Herald.