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The Holy Oak

Photo courtesy of Jon I. Klippel ’76

Jon I. Klippel ’76

Less than 40 miles from New York City’s skyline, a massive oak tree stood in the historic cemetery of Jon Klippel’s boyhood church, the Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge, N.J. “During my youth, the tree was not something I appreciated,” he says.

That was until a year ago when tree experts said the 600-year-old oak, nearly 100 feet tall with branches spreading 138 feet wide, was dying. Klippel, a member of the church’s planning committee, has pondered the fate of  the urban tree ever since. “When we found out that it was dead, it was a somber moment,” he remembers.

The tree, hailed as the oldest white oak in the United States, was growing three centuries before the Presbyterian congregation built its first log church in 1717. Klippel says that under the “Holy Oak,” as it was sometimes called, General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette met, colonial troops rested and a crowd of 3,000 gathered to hear a sermon by an English evangelist during the Great Awakening.

Although Klippel is semi-retired, helping the church solve its tree dilemma has been a full-time job. He has met with tree experts, historians, newspaper reporters, community leaders and church members. “This experience reminds me of my 30-year career in the development and marketing of medical devices,” he says fondly. “It’s all about the relationship with people – similar to when I dealt with designers and engineers, and worked with sales and customers.”

Klippel also says being transparent with the community and informative about the tree’s removal was important to him. “Basking Ridge had to come to grips with losing the town’s landmark,” he says. “We’ve had to work our way through stages of grief.”

Klippel says the church’s oak even caught the attention of major domestic and international news media. He’s been interviewed by the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Weather Channel and CBS Sunday Morning, and as a result, several curious visitors, including some from Hungary and India, came to see the tree.

“It was magnificent,” Klippel says of the old oak that was removed this spring. Another tree, grown from an acorn harvested several years ago from the old oak, was donated and planted not far away from where the original once stood. “Now the huge work begins,” Klippel laughs. “What to do with the wood!

“Before this, I could barely tell the difference between an oak and a maple,” Klippel says. But thanks to this experience, he looks at trees differently now. “You don’t make note of them until their existence is in peril.”

– Linda Mecca Green ’08

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