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May 24, 2024

MSU hosts Memorial Grove of the Great War Rededication Ceremony

Extensive updates were unveiled to a 105-year-old campus memorial honoring students and alumni who fought and died in World War I. 

On May 23, 2024, leaders from across Michigan State University and the state of Michigan gathered just west of Williams Hall in the shadow of a towering grove of oak trees to rededicate a campus memorial with a nearly 105-year-old story. 

Organized by the Student Veterans Resource Center, or SVRC, in partnership with the Department of Forestry, Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, the Army ROTC program, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency and the Michigan National Guard, the rededication ceremony celebrated expansive updates and enhancements to the Memorial Grove of the Great War. 

Color guard soldiers carrying out a flag ceremony
The Posting of the Colors, presented by the First Battalion, 125th Infantry. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

Originally dedicated on June 19, 1919, the Memorial Grove of the Great War was built in honor of the 33 students and alumni of Michigan Agricultural College, or M.A.C., (now Michigan State University) who died while fighting in World War I. The memorial was marked by a brass plaque engraved with each soldier’s name adorned to a field stone beside a grove of 33 oak trees to commemorate each soldier’s sacrifice.  

More than a century later, funding from the SVRC, Infrastructure Planning and Facilities and generous private donations from the MSU community is revitalizing this memorial. When fully complete, these updates will include the addition of a dedicated patio and flagpole area, a courtyard space and brick path leading up to the memorial, landscaping improvements, historical signage detailing the history of the memorial and the fallen soldiers as well as two benches flanking the field stone to provide an area for quiet reflection. 

Patrick Forystek speaks at the lectern
Opening remarks by Patrick Forystek, Director of the MSU Student Veterans Resource Center. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

“That’s why we’re here to today,” said SVRC Director Patrick Forystek, “to remember the 33 students and alumni represented on this memorial who gave their lives over 100 years ago. We’re here to keep the memory of them and their sacrifices alive. We’re here to do what we can to make sure their names are not forgotten. In that way, they are never truly gone.”

The rededication ceremony included the Posting of the Colors presented by the First Battalion, 125th Infantry, as well as remarks from Michigan National Guard Brigadier General, and MSU alumnus, Jeffrey Terrill (’91, Business) and Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director Brian Love.  

“The struggles and battles endured by so many Americans of generations past have stitched valor, leadership and wisdom into the fabric of American society, fostering a safer and more inclusive world for all,” said Brig. Gen Terrill. “Let the Michigan Agricultural College’s Grove of the Great War Memorial stand as a renewed symbol of remembrance, reflection and renewal for future generations.”

Group photo around the memorial plaque with Michigan State University leaders, staff, community members and Michigan Veterans Affairs staff

Leaders from across MSU and dignitaries from the state of Michigan gathered around the Grove of the Great War Memorial plaque with descendants of U.S. Army Corporal William B. Lutz, M.A.C. class of 1920, who was killed in action near Chery, Marne, France in 1918. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

“M.A.C. will do its part”

World War I began in 1914 and brought about an unprecedented level of suffering and carnage. There were an estimated 40 million military and civilian casualties as a result of the fighting and widespread destruction. The armistice agreement signed on Nov. 11, 1918, finally brought about an end to the hostilities after more than four years of war. 

The U.S. joined the war in 1917, with over 4 million soldiers deployed to fight overseas. America’s mobilization played a pivotal role in turning the tide of the war in favor of the Allies and bringing an end to the conflict. This crucial contribution came with a heavy cost. Ultimately, 116,516 American soldiers died in World War I, with another 204,000 wounded.

America’s entry into the war impacted all corners of life at M.A.C., affecting social activities, class schedules, sporting events, student enrollment and the campus landscape itself. “No one knows exactly what confronts us as a nation,” said M.A.C. President Frank Kedzie at an Alumni Association gathering in 1917, “but I know and feel that the M.A.C. will do its part in the future as it has done in the past.”

Commencement ceremonies were rescheduled while planning for a large M.A.C. anniversary event was halted. The 1917 semester start date was postponed, allowing students to assist during the harvest season on family farms to support the Army’s food supply needs. The Student Army Training Corps, or S.A.T.C., was established, leading to regular military training exercises on campus. Buildings were repurposed, with several dormitories converted into military barracks for soldiers temporarily on campus.

A memorial rooted in history

After the war’s end, the M.A.C. community began an effort to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the conflict. Led by the Department of Forestry, arrangements were made for the planting of a memorial grove of oak trees nestled between Michigan Avenue and the Red Cedar River in remembrance of each M.A.C. student and alum lost during the war. 

Award is presented by Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director Brian Love
Brian Love, Director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, presenting a distinguished service award to Dr. Chris Petras, a researcher and advocate for veterans. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

Guided by forestry department chair Alfred Chittenden (for whom Chittenden Hall is named), the Memorial Grove project exemplified the integral role of forestry in defining both the landscape and legacy of MSU’s history. Established in 1902, MSU’s forestry program is one of the oldest and most distinguished in the nation. The 33 oak trees that make up the Memorial Grove are part of MSU’s Campus Arboretum, which includes more than 20,000 trees spread across campus.

Since its establishment in 1873 by the legendary botanist and MSU Professor William Beal, the MSU Campus Arboretum has been meticulously cared for and tracked, offering students opportunities to study diverse species of live trees and plant science focused on forest sustainability practices. 

“In forestry, because trees and forests grow and develop slowly, we think in terms of decades, centuries and beyond,” said Richard Kobe, professor and chair of the Department of Forestry. “I am moved by the fact that more than 100 years ago, leaders from the forestry department played a key role in establishing the Memorial Grove. Like the enduring presence of these oaks, my hope is that we will always remember the courage and personal sacrifices of our veterans in defending freedom and democracy.”

The Memorial Grove revitalization project is particularly special to Dustin Lambries, a third-year Air Force veteran studying forestry. “I lost many friends in combat across Afghanistan and Iraq during my service,” said Lambries. “After I retired from the Air Force, I often feared that their sacrifices would be lost in time. The rededication of the Memorial Grove for the 33 students lost in World War I gives me hope and proves that, even over a century later, Spartans still honor our fallen.” 

Seeing his interest in forestry intersect with his military service and sacrifice through this project is an affirmation for Lambries that he made the right choice in attending MSU and pursuing his degree in forestry. 

“It is a testament to the university and forestry department that this memorial has withstood the decades and will continue to do so with renewed vigor.” 

A legacy of service that endures 

Brigadier General Jeffrey Terrill speaks at the lectern with flags in the background
Brigadier General Jeffrey Terrill (’91, Business) of the Michigan National Guard delivering remarks. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

Held on commencement day in 1919, the first Memorial Grove dedication ceremony was performed by Lt. Col. Augustus Gansser of the 125th infantry. The memorial was especially significant to Gansser as many of the soldiers honored had been fellow members of the 125th infantry during the war. In a poignant speech, he emphasized the enduring debt owed to these fallen soldiers for their courage, service and sacrifice in defense of a cause greater than themselves.  

“In this to us sacred spot and hour let us combine reverence and tribute and pledge for the future. We gather to dedicate this grove and tablet to the memory of the graduates and students of this great state school, who gave their lives so that the world might be made safe for democracy and democracy made safe for the world.”

For generations, Spartans have served in uniform. In 1861, M.A.C.’s entire senior class was excused before commencement ceremonies so that they could join the Union Army during the American Civil War. This legacy of service continues to this day. MSU is home to over 400 student veterans and more than 2,100 military-connected students. MSU currently has the largest population of self-identified military dependents among all Big Ten universities.

Combined image of the memorial plaque and a family group in attendance

Family members of U.S. Army Corporal William B. Lutz, M.A.C. class of 1920. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

“As a veteran, MSU Department of Forestry alumnus and a lover of trees, this memorial means a lot to me,” said Matthew Deering, a 2022 MSU graduate and military veteran who is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in forestry at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “Oaks are important in military culture, especially as symbols of strength and longevity. The oaks’ presence in the Memorial Grove reminds us of the strength of courage it took for Spartans before us to pause their studies and answer our nation’s call. And their longevity serves as a lasting tribute to those whose lives were cut short in the conflict once hoped to be the war to end all wars.”

Uniformed guard playing Taps on a single bugle
First Sergeant Schwallier of the 126th Amy Band playing a rendition of Taps. Photo by Derrick L. Turner

The 33 trees that form the Memorial Grove have transformed dramatically since they were planted. So have the campus and community around them. But the collective effort that has been poured into preserving and revitalizing this important MSU landmark also shows how much remains unchanged. That same spirit that inspired the planting of these trees more than a century ago remains as vibrant as ever. It is nourished by a community connected to its shared past and is rooted in a sense of responsibility to build a brighter future in honor of those who are gone but never forgotten.  

Learn more about how to support the World War I Grove Memorial Preservation Project, as well as special donor recognition opportunities. 

By: Alex Dardas

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