Evergreen tree lit with red lights on MSUM's campus

Tree spared from blaze is proud part of MSUM tradition


A quarter-century ago, MSUM sought to expand its campus footprint by providing students and employees with more parking spaces. The renovation project included the buyout and removal of five blocks of houses on the northeast side of campus near 11th Street and 5th Avenue. In the neighborhood stood an evergreen tree which was preserved during the expansion and became one of MSUM’s signature landscape pieces.

Kyle Kopacek, MSUM’s grounds and maintenance supervisor, was one of the people who worked to save the tree.

“Seeing the way campus was evolving and growing during that time was a memorable experience. We were eager to make campus bigger and better. I think we were all about that and we still are,” shared Kopacek.

The evergreen tree would become the first thing people saw when entering campus from the north. In order to earn that honorable distinction, it needed to be protected while the homes around it were removed. Kopacek said the grounds supervisor at the time, Gordy Bergman, told the crew about the plan and dispatched them to save the 5th Avenue tree.

“On the grounds crew you never know what you might be getting yourself into, and that day it was trying to save a tree from a fire,” he said.

The crew worked with the fire department for hours that day to keep the tree cool while the flames burned around it. The firemen provided the water and hose to the MSUM grounds crew, while they worked on the rest of the property.

“The fire would start creeping a little closer to the tree, the firemen would be hosing it down and we’d be hosing on it, so it was intense for a little bit,” Kopacek recalls.

Eventually, the fire died down and the tree stood untouched. There’s no guessing exactly how much water helped to protect the evergreen that day, but Kopacek estimates it was thousands of gallons. He remembers going into the situation a bit unsure, but determined.

“We were going to give it the ‘old college try,’ and it was successful. There was no guarantee [we could save the tree]; we didn’t know what was going to happen for sure, but we knew we wanted to give it a shot,” he said.

The hard part was done, but Kopacek said because of all the stress the tree endured they kept an eye on it throughout the following year to see if it was really going to survive. The team’s hard work paid off.

Years later, the tree stands tall and proud, a demonstration of the grit, humility and heart individuals like Kopacek and the grounds crew from that day bring to MSUM.

Over the past five years, MSUM has established a tradition of lighting the 5th Avenue tree along with many others for the holiday season. The trees’ festive lights debut every December.

This year, the trees will be lit on Friday, Dec. 4 around 5 p.m. The tree lighting is made possible by Border States and the MSUM Foundation.

An accompanying Winter Celebration of the Arts from MSUM School of Performing Arts ensembles will be available to stream at mnstate.edu/spa on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.

Jean Hollaar, Vice President of Finance and Administration, says the tree lightings represent campus and its rich history. “Having the opportunity to light that specific tree is all because of the individuals who helped preserve it and the decisions that were made at that time. That all weaves into the fabric of what makes our institution what it is today.”