It’s been the site of countless school gatherings, classroom lessons, graduations, the starts of childhood crushes and even one wedding.

The iconic Valley Oak tree at the back of Alta Heights Elementary School has stood longer than the school itself, but the tree’s life span is about to come to an end.

The tree is dying, said school principal Kirsten Gerhardt.

“Everybody loves the tree,” she said. “It’s the centerpiece for many of our celebrations.” However, “It was deemed a hazard” by the school district, Gerhardt said. “Student safety is our main concern.”

“This is a tree we’ve been monitoring actively for several years,” said Mike Pearson, executive director of facilities maintenance and operations at the Napa Valley Unified School District.

According to an arborist who studied the tree, it’s at 80 percent of its life expectancy. While the roots and truck appear to be in good health, “It’s the limbs that are the issue,” said Pearson.

The tree is about 51 feet tall with a canopy 90 to 95 feet in diameter. If it were to remain, the school district would have to create a secured area around the tree as large as 150 feet to prevent any falling branches from injuring anyone. That would take up almost the entire school field.

“It’s a tough one,” Pearson admitted. “It’s a majestic tree that’s been there forever.” In fact, his own children went to Alta Heights, located at 15 Montecito Blvd. in east Napa.

“But the safety of our students, staff and community is paramount,” he said. “Removal is probably the best thing to do.’”

The tree will be removed as soon as this winter break.

“Our students are quite sad,” said Principal Gerhardt. “A couple of them decided to make a tree memorial, which is sweet.”

A few items have been placed under the tree such as a poem, a note, a picture and a glass jar with a bow on it.

The oak tree is also dear to others connected to the school. Bert Dekker taught at Alta Heights school for 25 years – from 1992 to 2017.

“I used to teach in a room that looked over the playground area,” he said. “I could see the tree. It felt like a big protector of these little kids.”

Kids would collect acorns from the trees or play around its trunk.

Dekker met his wife, now Lorna Dekker, at the same school. “When it came time to get married” almost eight years ago, Dekker decided “we ought to get married under the old oak tree.” And they did.

“It was great fun,” said Dekker. Judge Ray Guadagni married the two, he noted.

Dekker is retired but still substitute teaches at Alta Heights. He was at the school when Gerhardt told him the bad news.

“I just put my head on the desk and said, ‘Oh my goodness,’” said Dekker. He knew the tree had been in bad health, “but you don’t want limbs falling down on kids. It’s got to come down.”

If that tree could talk, what a story it would tell, he said.

Generations of Alta Heights kids have played around that tree or sat under it, he said, plus those who lived on the land before that.

If he could choose what to plant in its place, Dekker suggested planting new oak trees from acorns from the original tree. “And the community could grow as the tree grows.”

Kathy Martin was the principal at Alta Heights from 1982 to 1997.

“I call it my Camelot years,” said Martin. The staff, students and the school were very special, “and the tree was the hub around which the school revolved.”

At that time, the school did not have an all-purpose room, “but we had the tree and that’s where we met,” she said.

“All of our class pictures were taken under the tree, promotion activities were always held under the ‘giant oak’ along with reward assemblies and recognition programs.”

“I am saddened by another chapter of Napa history coming to an end,” she said.

Gerhardt said the old oak tree will be commemorated in one specific way. Each year when the students go to an outdoor education program, they wear a slice of a tree branch called a “tree cookie” as a name tag. Her father is going to slice a few hundred “tree cookies” from the oak tree branches, she said.

“We’ll make some extras for those who are sentimental about the tree.”

Pearson said the wood from the tree could be offered to local school woodshop programs as well.

A new tree will be planted in its place “as fast growing as it can be,” said Pearson.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.