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Like they have done since Southeastern’s founding days, students traverse the path in front of the Friendship Oak, the iconic symbol of the university’s stability and growth.
“Those who kiss beneath its boughs one day will share marriage vows.”
If you’re not serious about your current “steady,” you may want to think twice before stopping for a smooch while passing by Friendship Oak. Legend has it that doing so may result in eventual matrimony.
Located in the heart of Southeastern Louisiana University’s campus, the iconic Friendship Oak has held court in Friendship Circle for over a century. According to history professor emeritus and Southeastern lore connoisseur C. Howard Nichols, the tree earned its name when it served as campus courtship central.
Students in the ‘30s gather under the branches
“The women’s dormitory across the street (Senior Hall at the time and now Campbell
Hall) may have contributed to the name since the tree’s spreading branches provided
a somewhat secluded ‘courting place’ for male suitors who called upon the female co-eds,”
The Kenelly family can attest to this. According to Ken Kenelly (‘75), his parents began their courtship beneath the oak’s languid limbs. Pat (‘47) and Bert (‘47) Kenelly attended what was then Southeastern Louisiana College in the years following World War II.
A Hall of Fame inductee for football, baseball and distinguished service as both a coach and athletics director, Southeastern’s baseball diamond is named in his honor Pat Kenelly Field at Alumni Stadium. An inductee in his own right for distinguished service as a football player, coach and administrator, Ken said there were countless memories from the baseball dugout and Strawberry Stadium, but Friendship Oak held a special place in both his parents’ hearts.
“I remember my dad saying that Friendship Oak was the special place on campus because they didn't have cars so that is where they dated,” he said. “He used to say, ‘If that oak ever starts talking, I'm going to have to chop it down.’”
So while the name may only refer to friendship, it’s understood -- with a wink and a smile -- to mean romantic friendships, not the BFF kind.
State Senator A.G. Crowe (‘73) is quick to point out that not only were he and Linda (‘73) sweethearts in their college days, but they’re still sweethearts today.
“We stood under Friendship Oak and I let her know she passed all the tests,” he said jokingly. “I proposed and let her know that if she would have me, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.”
Gavin Bendily plays under the Friendship
It was also beneath the canopy of the Friendship Oak’s branches that Brad Bendily (‘96) proposed. According to the former Erin Buratt (‘96), he couldn’t have picked a more perfect place.
“We both lived on campus so lunches and quiet walks under Friendship Oak were a regular occurrence, in addition to the numerous student events we participated in near Friendship Circle,” she said. “The moonlight shining through the oak’s branches was a beautiful sight,” she said. “And it always set the stage for a romantic kiss good-bye.”
One fall night in 2001, following a dinner to celebrate her job, Brad made a detour to campus to retrieve something he “forgot” in his office.
“He parked in front of Friendship Oak, which didn’t seem unusual given that his office was in nearby McClimans Hall,” she said. “But when we got out of the car, instead of walking toward McClimans, he led me under Friendship Oak, knelt down on one knee, told me how much he loved me, and asked me to marry him.”
She said yes and nine years ago they were married.
Erin currently serves as deputy superintendent of the Office of Developmental Support for the Louisiana Department of Education and Brad is systems administrator for Administrative Computing Services at Southeastern, but once upon a time they were both student workers on campus who met through their involvement with the Student Government Association.
Their two-year-old son Gavan has already been introduced to the Southeastern scene as evidenced by one of his first photo sessions that featured a Lions football helmet, stuffed Lion and Southeastern shirt.
John and Ellie Schroder represent
In the case of Ellie Schroder (‘83), her future husband could have been called for
a blatant offsides penalty when they first met on Southeastern’s intramural flag football
field John (‘84) was the coach of Ellie’s opposing team. The couple dated on and off
throughout their college years. A wrong mailing address threatened to thwart the couple’s
long-distance courtship, but was overcome and has since resulted in 26 years of marriage.
“John left for basic training after graduation.
I was not happy that he signed up for the military, and I didn't know about it. When I started getting calls from him at basic training, I refused them. I didn't know that he had been sending letters.” she said.
“And then one day either Scott Perriloux (’84) or Jay Barsenick (’84), who lived in the apartment next to me, brought me a stack of letters and told me that I needed to give John my correct apartment number.”
“After reading the letters, she started accepting my calls,” said John with a grin.
They credit Southeastern for providing them with excellent educations and have established an athletics scholarship in their names. Ellie is a technology resource teacher at Bayou Lacombe Middle School and has her bachelor's degree, plus thirty, and supervision certification all from Southeastern. John received his bachelor's in criminal justice from Southeastern, serves as State Representative for District 77 and is a small business owner.
Socializing in the circle continues a tradition that dates back to the 1930s when Friendship Oak’s much younger branches sheltered a popular student hangout. At one time wooden benches sat at the base of the landmark tree’s trunk and a small frame structure housed a refreshments stand that dispensed coffee, soft drinks and hamburgers that cost a nickel each. Dubbed the “Pop House” by students, it was razed once the War Memorial Student Union was constructed in the early 1950s, according to Nichols.
By the 1980s a circular bench that wrapped around the massive tree’s trunk had been installed. In 2004 a wooden deck was constructed to protect its root system from further compaction and damage.
Since the return of football in 2002, the Lion Walk has become part of the Southeastern game day tradition. As the team makes its way to Strawberry Stadium two hours prior to kickoff, players and coaches are greeted by loyal Lion tailgaters who flock to Friendship Circle on game days. Students have also begun hosting Live @ The Oak on evenings before home football games. Plenty of music and food set the mood to kick start tailgating for the next day.
Registered with the Louisiana Live Oak Society, Friendship Oak reigns with arboreal authority over Friendship Circle and beckons passers-by to socialize in its shade.
Whether you believe in the legend of a kiss beneath its branches is up to you.
However, next time you stroll through Friendship Circle with your sweetheart, be sure to glance at the Spanish moss that graces its branches. When the breeze catches it just right, it can easily be mistaken for a bridal veil made of heirloom lace. Perhaps it’s trying to foretell many kisses yet to come.
Alumni, students, and friends of Southeastern Louisiana University are invited to take part in “Project Friendship” through the purchase of personalized bricks in Friendship Circle, the historical heart of Southeastern’s campus.
Proceeds from the purchase of the $100 bricks support the Southeastern Foundation’s Annual Fund, a key revenue source for the university’s academic programs.
Go to southeastern.edu/projectfriendship to order.