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Sesquicentennial Moments: The Gum Tree

Gum Tree at top of Cardiac Hill.
Southeast Missouri State University
Gum Tree at top of Cardiac Hill.

Perched majestically upon Cardiac Hill, the rare Gum Tree – indigenous to the Southeast campus – is a one of our timeless traditions. And while the tree itself has evolved through at least five incarnations – most significantly from wood to metal – one constant endures: a hard exterior of repurposed chewing gum.

To celebrate the university’s birthday, let’s talk about the Gum Tree.

While its exact origins remain shrouded in mystery, one of the first references to the Gum Tree appeared in the 1967 volume of The Sagamore yearbook. This would suggest that it grew up alongside the Towers Complex, which were built between 1966 and 1968.
Legend has it that during Dr. Mark Scully’s presidency, chewing gum was banned inside campus buildings. So, as students ascended the summit of Cardiac Hill from their new dorms below, they wisely deposited their gum on a small redbud tree before entering the main campus. The practice kind of stuck, soon covering the tree in Juicy Fruit and Wrigley's.

Vandals felled this first Gum Tree in October 1989, while strong winds took the second years later. A new black tupelo died in a drought. The fourth – a tulip poplar – succumbed to a combination of sidewalks, lack of sunlight, and salt runoff during the winter.

Today, a new, metal sculpture – resembling a tree – stands as a permanent beacon at the summit of Cardiac Hill. Its native gummy bark is a work-in-progress, waiting for students and alumni alike to leave their traditional offerings.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.