The Bittle tree, once standing tall on Roanoke’s Turbyfill Quad, was planted by Roanoke’s first President Dr. David Bittle himself. The tree stood for more than 100 years and grew into an imposing tulip poplar. The College nurtured the tree to the best of its ability, but after lightning strikes and wind damage, it became a hazard and had to be taken down.
Though the original tree itself was removed, it still remains a part of the campus in the new form of the Bittle Tree of Life Cross, just in time for Roanoke’s 175th anniversary year. Reverend Chris Bowen, Roanoke’s dean of the chapel, was inspired to update the Antrim Chapel with a newer, symbolic cross using the Bittle tree wood. He enlisted George Arthur, retired professor and Olin Hall technical director, to execute this task.
Since Bowen joined the Roanoke community, one of his goals was to update Antrim Chapel by integrating important symbols of biblical literature and the College.
“We show who we are and what we do through symbols,” he said. One great symbolic theme in both the Bible (Christian and Hebrew) and the Roanoke College community is that of the tree. The College is populated with sacred trees — trees planted by or for members of the community. The Bittle Tree of Life Cross is the third symbolic feature within the Antrim Chapel, among which include the two banners on either side of the altar.
Bowen and Arthur drafted idea after idea until they settled upon a cross, 4’8″ wide by 7’6″ tall, featuring a tree with firm roots planted in the ground and branches extending upwards. “Trees, like humans, grow when they have deep roots and branches with room to stretch out,” Bowen said. The roots of both the Bittle tree and the College started with Bittle’s vision, and the extending branches are the future of the College and its students.