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On a February afternoon, they found out it was true. So many times they had filled up the place because the place filled them up. But now they went for a different reason.
Toni Rich raises money for scholarships through Auburn University's alumni office. She got the phone call on the way back from an Auburn Club meeting in north Georgia. She drove into town and picked up her five-year-old son, Gabriel, from day care. They went straight to Toomer's Corner.
Along the way she told the boy what had happened. There was this bad man who came. He poured some poison on the ground. It got in the trees. We might not be able to stop it.
They were among the first ones to arrive. But then Toni Rich saw the people coming from every direction, across the lawns of the campus, up Magnolia Avenue and down College Street, to the spot where the two 30-foot-tall oak trees have framed Auburn's main entrance for 130 years. Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on the Tigers' first football team, in 1892, built a drugstore diagonally across the street in 1896. Because of Toomer's Drugs the intersection is Toomer's Corner, and because of that, the trees are Toomer's Oaks.
About five weeks before, when Auburn beat Oregon 22--19 for the national championship, thousands of people came to cry and holler and whoop War Eagle. Fans have crowded Toomer's Corner after big Auburn wins for more than 50 years. At some point they started to bring rolls of toilet paper. One story traces it to 1972 when Auburn running back Terry Henley promised to "beat the Number 2" out of second-ranked Alabama, and the Tigers ran back two blocked punts for touchdowns in the last six minutes to win 17--16. Fans used to drape toilet paper over the power lines. After the city buried the lines, fans flung the TP into the trees. And on that championship night, Jan. 10, they rolled Toomer's Oaks until the trees streamed white.
But on this February day, people laid offerings at the roots. A roll of toilet paper with get well drawn in Sharpie. A memo to God on a diner receipt. A hand-drawn card with a painting of a tree and a quote from Alabama native Helen Keller: "What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us."
That quote is both truth and a lie.
Toomer's Oaks stand for Auburn, and they will live as long as memory. But they are also trees, and they can be killed. The dying had begun.
Toni Rich and her boy lingered in the crowd for three hours, staring at the poisoned oaks. Gabriel had many questions, but this one most of all:
Why would somebody do that?