The roots of Will Locke’s passion for trees go back to his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s when he visited his grandparents’ small farms northeast of Wichita, Kansas.
“They had no irrigation and a lot of wind and heat, so they planted trees to take care of the land,” he said. “When I visited, they usually had me plant trees to keep me busy. Today we would call it environmental stewardship.”
Decades later at age 84, the emeritus professor of teacher education and 1961 alumnus is a constant presence on campus as the volunteer steward of the Hastings College Arboretum, which spans 120 acres and includes more than 1,000 trees ranging from American Elms and Northern Red Oaks to Colorado Blue Spruces and Douglas Firs.
Under the guidance of maintenance manager Paul Dooley (“I’ve learned so much from him,” Locke said), he spends hundreds of hours each year planting and pruning trees, tending the tree nursery and inspecting trees for damage or disease. Certified as a Nebraska Master Gardener, Locke also serves on the City Tree Board and is a sought-after resource for local residents looking for guidance on tree planting and maintenance.
“No matter what the weather, there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t see Will driving around in his red pickup truck checking on trees or walking across campus with a group giving an arboretum tour,” said Dr. Rich Lloyd ‘85, president. “He’s a real treasure for our campus and community.”
A deeper meaning
Locke explains his love for trees by mentioning their well-known benefits — shade, beauty, land preservation and cleaner air — but his passion also has a deeper meaning.
“Trees are a metaphor for life,” he said. “Like us, trees grow and reproduce, they have challenges and they recover. They have connections like our families.”
He points out the towering American Elm between the Wilson Center and Babcock Hall, one of the original 227 trees planted on empty pasture by local Presbyterians on April 25, 1883, after the groundbreaking for McCormick Hall. Locke delivers seeds from the tree to the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum where they are germinated in a greenhouse. Copyrighted by the state arboretum as “HC American Elms,” the progenies are sent to places around Nebraska, with about a dozen planted at Hastings College.
“There’s going to be an HC American Elm on campus for the next 200 years,” Locke said.
Hastings College has been designated a Tree Campus USA for the past eight years. In 2021, the College was honored with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum’s Affiliate Excellence Award for developing the campus landscape as a teaching and learning tool for students and visitors.
“The state recognized Hastings not only because our campus looks good but also because of student service,” Locke said. “I think we’re exceptional in that way. We record 700 hours of service for the arboretum each year including students, faculty and other volunteers.”
Students helped plant the tree nursery behind Lynn Farrell Arena and the rain garden west of Morrison-Reeves Science Center. On campus service days, they spread wood chips around shrubbery and plant crabapple trees along the Circle Drive. The experiences connect them to the natural world and Hastings College for a lifetime, Locke said.
“These students are always going to plant trees. If you plant a tree when you’re young, you’re going to keep doing it,” he said. “The students also remain bonded with the College. They’ll come back to campus and look at the trees or gardens they planted.”
Locke works with the Hastings College Foundation on a Tribute Tree program that allows individuals to sponsor the planting of a tree in honor or in memory of a special person or group. A plaque at the base of each of the nearly 60 tribute trees designates species, donor and honored person.
As he makes his rounds checking trees, Locke carries a four-inch binder and well-worn maps that document the species and location of each tree on campus. More than mere records, they remind the veteran educator of his own growth as a lifelong learner and teacher.
“The whole Hastings College experience sets you up constantly to ask questions and keep learning and engaging with people,” he said. “Because of trees, I am still able to do that.”