FLEMING ISLAND – More than 100 students, teachers, faculty and community members gathered at the recess field of St. Johns Classical Academy to celebrate Arbor Day and honor a student that died last year.
Wickus Viljoen was a sixth grader at SJCA when he died in September of cancer. The day that happened was the school’s toughest day. Some time has passed since then but the wound of that loss is still healing. An evergreen tree that historically symbolizes strength, morale, resistance and knowledge amongst other things was planted on Florida’s Arbor Day on Jan. 17 in honor of Viljoen, and while the day brought sadness, it also brought new life to the school.
“We’re here today because we love Wickus and because we want him to be a part of us forever,” SJCA Headmaster Lori Meredith said.
Florida Forest Service Senior Forester Jon Johnson and Clay County Water and Soil Conservation District Supervisor Wes Taylor provided the Live Oak tree that they also planted at the school. It’s the Oak tree that has long been seen as a symbol of strength and courage and it’s a fitting choice for a tree meant to represent Viljoen, Meredith said.
Viljoen’s family and friends were present for the service and everyone in attendance sang happy birthday to Viljoen because not only was Jan. 17 Florida Arbor Day, but it was Viljoen’s birthday as well.
The ceremony was also used as a day to educate the sixth graders. Johnson explained how Arbor Day was created by J. Sterling Morton in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to remind people of the importance of trees.
“People were cutting down trees left and right to build their homes and other buildings and Morton saw a need for us to replenish the ground,” Johnson said. “So, he created Arbor Day which is now celebrated every year in which we plant trees.”
Morton chose April 10 as Arbor Day because that’s when the cold weather finally begins to disappear in Nebraska. Florida, however, is not privy to cold weather beyond a few weeks which is why in 1889, the state created its own Arbor Day. That’s why Taylor and Johnson also went to Doctors Inlet Elementary to plant trees.
Meredith presented a plaque to Viljoen’s family after the ceremony and said that a permanent plaque would be installed in front of the tree to forever commemorate the memory of Viljoen. The tree is roughly 4 feet tall today but Live Oaks can grow up to 24 inches in a year with the right conditions.
“One day, this tree will provide shade for future students and a home for birds and squirrels,” Johnson said. “It will provide oxygen for everyone and it will always be here.”