Grace Norton '22 was not going to graduate without solving her family’s 46-year-old mystery.
One of her earliest memories of Longwood, in fact, centers on that mystery. She was young, bored and restless, sitting in the Alumni Office at Longwood with her older sister while her parents and staff poured through archives trying to find a tree.
“It took all day,” she said, “and in the end, we left without knowing anything.”
The tree at the heart of Grace’s mystery is a memorial tree, planted in 1976 for her Aunt Donna, her father’s sister who died while she was a student at Longwood. The tree was planted, a plaque was placed, and as too often happens in stories like these, records were lost and memories faded.
After more than four decades, no one knew where the tree was.
But Grace Norton–who will walk across the stage with a degree in Business Administration on Saturday–was determined that she would not leave campus without finding Aunt Donna’s tree.
So she did.
In February 1976, Longwood sophomore Donna Norton went to Blacksburg to visit a friend at Virginia Tech. Just outside of town on Prices Fork Road, the car ran off the road and struck a pole. Donna, the passenger, was killed.
She was just 19, just three days away from her 20th birthday.
Donna was pledging Alpha Gamma Delta and planned to be an elementary school teacher. She left behind parents, an 8-year-old brother and a shocked group of friends at Longwood, who went to work on something to memorialize her short life.
That April, as her classmates were finishing their semesters and preparing for exams, a flowering cherry tree was planted on Stubbs Mall and dedicated by classmates Elaine Snead and Brenda Chisholm.
The tree branched out and grew taller, but as those who knew Donna graduated and moved away, time began to hide all traces of the tree’s significance.
This spring, the last semester of her senior year, Grace Norton was about to give up.
It seemed as if the prospects of finding Aunt Donna’s memorial tree and its plaque had vanished. Grace’s sister, Kelsey Norton Russell ’19, hadn’t been able to locate it during her four years on campus. Their mother, Kimberly Bell Norton ’90, had returned to campus several times as an alum and tried to find it.
Nothing. Nada. Not a clue where it was.
“All we had was a picture of a sapling, a few clips from The Rotunda newspapers in 1976 that mentioned the planting, and my father’s memories from when he was 8,” said Grace. “We didn’t know if the tree was even still here—maybe it had died or fallen over or been removed. I thought I’d try one last time.”
So she gathered the few details her family had and sent it to President W. Taylor Reveley IV.
Within a few minutes, Reveley had enlisted the help of David Love, director of landscape and grounds, who had an inkling of the tree’s location.
One quick glance at the photo and Love knew where the tree should be. “That part of campus has changed so much in the last 50 years, it’s almost unrecognizable to most people unless you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
There was a tree in that spot, but in Love’s more than 10 years at Longwood, and in his grounds manager’s more than 30 years here, neither had ever seen a plaque.
“The only possibility was that it was buried deep in the mulch,” he said.
Love took a crew to the middle of Stubbs Mall. There, tucked between neatly the rows of stately 20-year-old crape myrtles and towering pines that line the main sidewalk is a tree that, at second glance, doesn’t fit.
Just to the right of center, next to the steps that lead to Stubbs Hall, is a cherry tree that blooms bright pink in the early spring.
Love’s crew dug under more than three decades of mulch, decomposing leaves, and dirt at the base of that cherry and suddenly hit something hard: a small cement block with a metal plate attached to the top.
They had found Aunt Donna’s tree.
The inscription on the small brass plaque has long since rubbed away, leaving only a bare patina on top of the concrete block, but the meaning of this simple discovery reverberates through generations.
“My father started to sob when I called to tell him they found the tree,” said Grace. “It was his only sister, and he lost her when he was so young, it’s really meaningful for him to remake that connection. And for me, it’s really special to know that I can come back here to this place.”
Brass plates can be replaced, and that is what the family will do. The Alumni Office has added the tree to its official memorial tree database. The grounds crew has landscaped the mulch so that the plaque can be seen.
Now Grace Norton can graduate knowing she solved a mystery that seemed impossible just a few months ago, which makes Commencement that much more special.
“I feel like I can leave now,” she said. “My sister and I never got to meet her, but we always heard stories about her. It really makes me feel closer to her.”
And when Commencement is over and hundreds of families head to the usual spots along High Street for photos, the Norton family will head in the opposite direction, to stand under the canopy of a flowering cherry with Aunt Donna.