Norman memorializes Oklahoma City Bombing with new growth

Emma Keith, The Norman Transcript, Okla.
·3 min read

Apr. 25—When Norman residents visit parks across the city in about a year's time, more than two dozen tiny memorials to the Oklahoma City Bombing will greet them.

The City of Norman officially presented the first of those memorials, a young American Elm tree in Andrews Park, on Sunday.

In commemoration of the bombing's 25th anniversary — a date that came as the city was beginning its journey through the pandemic last year — the City of Norman will plant 25 more American Elms, all sourced from the original Oklahoma City survivor tree, at green spaces across Norman.

"This will always be a piece of who we are," Norman Mayor Breea Clark said Sunday. "It's very sad. The great thing about it, though, is that it constantly reminds us of the better versions of ourselves that we can become. That's why events like this, I think, are incredibly important, so that we never forget what happened 26 years ago now."

The city gathered around just one of the trees Sunday. Twenty-five others are still just a few feet tall and should be ready for planting next year, city forester Tim Vermillion said.

Norman purchased the seedlings through the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which sends seeds from the original survivor tree to a grower in California for tending and sale.

The survivor tree, thought to be around 100 years old now, lived through the blast that took 168 lives in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Vermillion potted Norman's seedlings when the pandemic began, anticipating that Sunday's ceremony would take place last April, as was originally planned.

When the 25 young trees are ready for planting, they'll be dispersed throughout Norman's parks. The city has given Norman families that were touched by the bombing their pick of planting placement, Vermillion said.

The survivor tree's seedlings haven't just stayed in the metro area; they're planted across the country. In Joplin, Missouri, a survivor tree sapling commemorates the massive tornado that ripped through the area in 2011; in New York City, a sapling at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge memorializes Sept. 11.

The small trees in Norman commemorate an act of terrorism that didn't happen in this city but was deeply felt here, Clark said Sunday.

"What happened on April 19, 1995, didn't just happen to Oklahoma City — it happened to the world, frankly," Clark said. "... One of the things I love about the metro community is we're pretty much a family of cities, so I wanted to make sure that we gave them our support and respect when they hit that big milestone.

"Because Normanites and Oklahomans and everyone is impacted by it, I always think it's so important to have a physical space to reflect on it."

Melissa McLawhorn Houston, a Norman resident and bombing survivor, said the survivor tree stands as "a symbol of our commitment to remember" the events of April 19, 1995.

"The survivor tree has stood as a witness to history, but it has also stood as a symbol of resilience ... it was, for us, a sign of hope," said Houston, who now serves on the board of directors for the memorial. "It was a sign of our resilience — it was a sign of time moving on, despite the pain. It was new growth through old scars."

The trees are not just a tangible memorial to those affected by the bombing, Houston said. They carry a lesson with them for all communities.

"It's so important to never forget what happened that day and to never forget those who were killed, those who were impacted, but to also not forget as a country and as a community that we know where violence leads," Houston said. "We know when you dehumanize people what the consequences of that can be. For us, as a community, and as a state and as a country, to pause and remember those lessons is especially important."

Emma Keith covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma for The Transcript. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.