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Home is Where the Hokie is

By John Wakefield Hawley ’08

The first 2-year-old War Memorial oak tree I received from Virginia Tech perished before I ever had the chance to see its green leaves.

It was a wedding gift, regrettably left unopened in the garage of our new home in Virginia Beach while I finished Nuclear Power School in New York and my bride, Carissa, completed her sea tour in Japan. Unwatered and ignored for several months, the tree was undoubtedly done.

Virginia Tech graciously sent out a replacement at no charge. This time, I had the advantage of being a resident of my home, as well as the recipient of good planting and care instructions. A year later, this tree met the same fate as the first; it was as dry as firewood. Apparently, even with the right intentions, I had difficulties keeping trees alive.

An artist's drawing of oak leaves and acorns on a field of maroon.
Art courtesy of Hailey Temple.

Embarrassed but determined, I reached out again to Virginia Tech and received yet another replacement tree, free of charge. Shipping costs alone put the university on the losing side of this experiment in human decency, let alone the efforts and manpower to send me trees over the years. Still, another Hokie tree arrived at my home and immediately transplanted into the center of my yard. About a year later, while my wife and I were both on separate deployments, the lawn company accidentally ran it over. Must have been a Virginia alumnus.

With my tail between my legs, I emailed Virginia Tech again for the last time. I recounted the disheartening story of my three trees and asked if I could purchase a much older tree — one that could withstand human incompetence. Within 24 hours, I received a reply. My email had circulated a half-dozen times until it landed with the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The dean had located a 6-foot, 5-year-old Hokie tree and had identified a fellow Hokie traveling to Virginia Beach that weekend with a truck. The dean had even engaged a local gardener to maintain the newly planted tree for a couple weeks while I was out to sea. Ut Prosim!

That tree is now 8 years old and stands nearly 30 feet tall.

Some might argue there are less complicated or expensive ways to show your school spirit than an eight-year horticultural project. Since graduation in 2008 from the university and the Corps of Cadets, I have dabbled in many outward expressions of my true Hokie spirit.

Over the years, we have all seen hundreds of pictures of alumni proudly showcasing the Virginia Tech flag. Maroon and orange look good draped over the side of military aircraft as a centerpiece to cadet reunions or in any worldwide deployment photo. After commissioning into the U.S. Navy, I too bought one of these flags and packed it into my sea bag as I met my first ship for deployment.

Carissa, Madelyn, and John Hawley with their dog, Django, in front of their War Memorial oak at their old home.
Carissa, Madelyn, and John Hawley with their dog, Django, in front of their War Memorial oak at their home.

My chance came off the coast of Yokosuka, Japan, on the USS McCampbell. Having completed our assigned mission, we took to floating around an arbitrary box as we waited for a follow-on mission to begin. Over lunch, I described to the commanding officer my vision of the customary Virginia Tech flag photo taken around the ship. The captain, not wanting to be outdone by another service or warfare domain, told me not to do anything he wouldn’t do.

With that, I was off. Fast-forward an hour, I have my flag in one hand and shipboard-secure walkie-talkie with the officer of the deck in the other. To get the perfect winds for the perfect flag and ship photo, this 9,200-ton warship changed course and speed, maroon and orange blazing proudly from the mast.

Closer to home, my Hokie spirit has always taken center stage. Some displays were straightforward: the Virginia Tech garden flag, the “procured” Hokie stones lining the front walkway, a “VT” etched into my freshly paved driveway. However, some were more involved.

I once reupholstered my living room chairs with Virginia Tech logo fabric. I was single at the time and had foolishly left my house in the hands of the wrong people, who had ruined the original chairs. When searching for new upholstery, the “VT” fabric found me, a diehard DIYer. The chairs stayed that way until my wife and I set out to have children. I’ve been told that it’s just too much Hokie pride in one room for any house to contain.

Surprisingly, it was my mailbox that really opened the door to the public display of Hokie spirit. When my wife and I moved into our first home, I discovered that to get the right look I wanted for my mailbox, I needed to powder coat my own. There are no high-quality, commercially available maroon mailboxes with an orange handle and a flag, at least that I was able to locate. Additionally, living within a fairly strict HOA, I had to make sure the box looked professional, so non-Hokies wouldn’t really notice or be bothered.

I didn’t know how to powder coat, so I did what you do when you want to learn something new — bought a professional powder coating gun as a forcing function and binged every useful YouTube video I could find. This, along with about 10 pounds of maroon and orange powder, several test subjects, and a toaster oven all arrived at my house.

My world turned maroon and orange as random metallic items around the garage got the treatment and were baked to perfection in the toaster oven. Repetition accelerated my proficiency.

Before long, I was decent enough to convince the neighborhood of a professional effort. I headed to Home Depot for a high-quality, large mailbox. I took down the dimensions, confirming I was in trouble. The mailbox was larger than my toaster oven.

A few Craigslist clicks later, I came home with another oven on a dolly — a full-size kitchen oven. This appliance unfortunately used a different power supply than my plug-in toaster oven. A non-Hokie may have admitted defeat at this road block. But with my now maroon and orange tools, I learned how to rewire the home circuit board and installed a 220-volt receptacle in my garage for the oven-dolly appliance. No small feat. Gobble, gobble!

The mailbox is gorgeous.

Our daughter, Madelyn, is the proud owner of the only maroon and orange dual-use swing in the neighborhood. Perhaps you have seen these types of swings, where the adult swings opposite the child, both facing inward so they can see one another. Our dog chases after our daughter when she swings, but at least his collar links are conveniently, you guessed it, orange and maroon.

I often tell friends and family that we will pay for my daughter’s college as long as she goes to Virginia Tech. As a Naval Academy grad, my wife is not too fond of brainwashing our child into becoming a Hokie. I always say it jokingly, but she must know that I mean it.

Like most 3-year-old darlings, Madelyn loves bedtime stories. Her favorite story was homegrown over a year ago and goes something like this: “Once upon a time, there was a Virginia Tech HokieBird. He lived on Upper Quad in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his two best friends, the Virginia Tech cow and the Virginia Tech unicorn. Their favorite activities began after eating breakfast at Schultz Hall. Sometimes they would play Frisbee golf or ultimate Frisbee on the Drillfield. They loved to trade stories and wrap up the day at TOTS [Top of The Stairs] — not the kind you eat.” She knows the plot and characters well enough to fill in most of the important bits when I pretend to forget.

Truth be told, I cannot forget. And of all the maroon and orange embellishments around me, the one that brings me the most pride is the Hokie tree. It is alive and well because eight years earlier people I had never met rallied behind my cause, instead of telling me to find another hobby. The tree represents a group of Hokies who innately live the values of our Pylons: Brotherhood, Service, and Ut Prosim. The others — Honor, Leadership, Sacrifice, Loyalty, and Duty — could also be argued. As the Pylon Society states: “These are the ideals emblazoned on the eight pylons of Virginia Tech’s most beloved monument, the War Memorial. They are also the ideals held dear by generations of loyal Virginia Tech alumni and friends.” I know this to be true.

Before selling our first home, the tree was a serious part of the negotiation process. We made the buyers promise to take care of the tree and/or give us the first right of refusal if they were ever to take it down. There was no resistance to this request. They have since removed surrounding trees to make it the star of the front-yard show.

I think it makes a difference when the flair that represents your alma mater is actually alive. This living oak tree, previous episodes aside, might and should outlive me and maybe even my future Hokie daughter. Did you know the humongous bur oak in front of Burruss Hall is from the late 1800s? I admit, the Virginia Tech dining room chairs were eye-catching — people even offered to buy them from us — but nothing stands to represent our university like the trees.

Hawley onboard the USS McCampbell.
Hawley onboard the USS McCampbell.

Virginia Tech, to me, is living. It is brimming with the spirit, pride, and empathy that got that first (err … fourth) tree to take root in our yard. Its own roots are deep in families, friends, and memories. Virginia Tech pushed me to grow and expand, whether the challenge was learning Navy nuclear power or installing a 220V receptacle.

And the trees, like Hokies, seem to recognize that wherever they are, they can grow further, dig deeper, get more out of their life. They flourish not only in terms of size, but in terms of purpose. The trees are part of the memory of leaving campus for a break, passing them as you head home to hang out with your friends, or of leaving home to deploy.

I have since made it my mission to plant a Hokie tree at every house I own — maybe even a few I don’t own, if given the opportunity. It is this mission that leads me to maintain 40 acorns in zipper bags at the back of my refrigerator (despite my wife’s protests) to imitate winter and remove the tempted squirrel from the equation. During the same trip to Virginia Tech when I collected these acorns, I also came home with another 11-foot, 6-year old tree and a 2-footer, from the same people who opened their hearts to me during my earlier tree struggles. These trees were for our new home, where they immediately prospered. A piece of Blacksburg will grace our home for the fore-treeable future, and it is a daily reminder that home is where the Hokie is.

One day, my daughter will be too old for bedtime stories and swings. When that time comes, the Virginia Tech War Memorial oak will offer her shade, strength, and beauty. It will remind her of her roots and of the values that can grow when well-tended. And one day, I will plant a Hokie tree for her in the yard of her first home, and I will not let it die.

John Hawley ’08 is a master facilitator for major corporations and businesses. He conducts both virtual and on- and off-site workshops, retreats, and team-building and strategic events. He’s at