Houston’s Hero Tree taken down, plans for updated memorial

HOUSTON (AP) — With the buzz of a landscaper’s chainsaw, the “Hero Tree” came down this week in Meyerland Plaza.

The Houston Chronicle reports the live oak was dedicated in 1961 to memorialize Texas Air National Guard Capt. Gary Herod, who sacrificed his life to save others in a jet crash that spring. And for more than half a century, the tree has weathered the seasons near the corner of Beechnut and Endicott Lane — growing taller and letting its branches sprawl.

But earlier this year, an arborist determined the tree was in decline. Believing the live oak would die, local real estate agent Charles Goforth decided to build a longer-lasting memorial to Herod’s heroism.

Goforth has a plan to create a new memorial spot near Brays Bayou in the pilot’s honor, replacing the old Hero Tree with something bigger and better. But first, he decided, the tree had to come down.

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On Tuesday, a crew from landscape company LMC removed the oak from its spot near the sidewalk along Beechnut. Now just a stump remains, surrounded by bits of trash and remnants of the Indian hawthorn that once grew around the trunk.

“To me, the writing was on the wall,” Goforth said. He grew up in the neighborhood playing around the tree, and said he didn’t want to watch it slowly die.

He got in touch with Herod’s family in North Texas and got their blessing to make some changes. Then he got the go-ahead from Meyerland Plaza’s management company, Fidelis. Within a matter of weeks, the landscapers were pulling the Hero Tree from its concrete-swaddled home.

Fidelis referred the matter to its marketing company, but confirmed Thursday that Goforth acted with its permission.

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Herod’s family agrees with Goforth that cutting down the tree was just speeding up the inevitable — even if they’re sad to see it go.

“It’s mixed emotions,” said Cynthia Herod Lichtman, the pilot’s daughter.

The tree “might have lived on for who knows how many more years — but it wouldn’t have thrived,” she said. “I just would hate to sit there and watch it die.”

Lichtman was just 3½ years old when her father was killed. Herod was flying over Houston that night when his T-33 jet trainer’s engine malfunctioned. Unable to make it to the closest airstrip, the pilot was left with two choices: He could bail out, leaving the plane to crash into a subdivision, or he could stay aboard and try to guide it toward an unpopulated area.

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Herod stayed with his plane. He crashed into an open field near the bayou — and in doing so, he became a hero in Houston. The city dedicated the Hero Tree to Herod the same spring, putting a plaque beneath a tiny oak tree in the shiny new Meyerland Plaza.

The Hero Tree had grown to be tall and graceful — but it was struggling, according to a February assessment by arborist Steve Navarro. Navarro reported the tree had some “die-back” on its crown, largely because it was “growing in the middle of a retail parking lot” with nowhere for its roots to go.

“It was in bad shape,” Goforth said, and he worried that the tree and its plaque would see further damage during construction of the new H-E-B grocery at Meyerland Plaza.

The pieces of the memorial went in different directions:

The memorial plaque, which sits on a granite base and declares that Herod “died a hero,” was moved to nearby Herod Elementary, at least for now. (The school, which opened in 1965, was named for the captain.)

The tree itself was given to the Woodworkers Club of Houston, which will work with Herod’s family to turn the trunk and branches into souvenirs. Lichtman, the pilot’s daughter, said she would like the wood to become a cane for her mother, or perhaps a memorial bench at the new park.

And some small oak seedlings — which grew from fallen acorns beneath the tree — will be given to the Herod family as well.

Michelle Turek, principal of Herod Elementary, said she’s glad her school has the memorial plaque, even though it was “shocking” for the tree to disappear so quickly.

The Herod family comes to visit the school every year, Turek said, and the students all know about Capt. Herod and the Hero Tree.

“Kids felt like it was part of who they are and part of their identity being at Herod Elementary,” she said.

Last year, Turek said, students wrote a letter to H-E-B, pleading with the company to take care of the Hero Tree when it built a new store at Meyerland Plaza. H-E-B assured them it had no plans to remove the tree — but it turns out, the tree didn’t belong to the grocery store chain.

The new park will be close to Brays Bayou — and closer to the original crash site, Goforth said. He’s been working with Harris County Flood Control, the Houston Parks Board and other entities.

Trent Rondot, conservation and maintenance director for the Houston Parks Board, said that if the desired location works, it’ll be along the bayou just west of Chimney Rock Road.

“I know it’s always controversial when you take a tree down,” said Bill Cox, founder of LMC, the landscaping company that removed the tree. But Cox said he gives “a lot of credit” to Goforth for wanting to create a better memorial to Herod.

“He’s put so much energy and time into this thing, and I think this tree meant something to him personally,” Cox said.

Lichtman said she’s at peace with the loss.

“At least there’ll be something of this tree to live on,” Lichtman said. “If we waited ’til it died, there wouldn’t be any wood left to work with.”

She knew people in the neighborhood might be upset about the tree’s removal, but she said the Herod family is “OK with it” and excited about the future park.

“There might be some disappointment for sure,” Turek said, when Herod students find out the tree has disappeared.

She’s hoping they will get excited about the promise of a new memorial. Even so, she can’t help feeling wistful that the original Hero Tree is gone now. “I feel a little part of all of us is just kind of going away with it.”