Legacy Tribute Tree memorializes beloved husband

Susan Stalcup Gray

Susan Stalcup Gray poses next to the Korean fir she purchased in honor of her husband Tom as part of the MU legacy gift program. The tree is located just south of Jesse Hall.

Since 1982, Susan Stalcup Gray’s Christmas missives to family and friends have been original stories, poems, a cookbook and even a calendar. For Christmas 2016, she wrote and shared a whimsical tale, “The Special Tree”. In the story, a fir tree planted on the south side of University of Missouri’s Jesse Hall thwarts a robbery with the help of a squirrel, a young girl and the girl’s dog.

The Korean fir tree that saves the day in Susan’s story actually grows and thrives in real life in the exact spot described in the story. And though it doesn’t actually communicate with humans, it shares a message of love and cherished memories for Susan, her family and her friends.

The small tree is a Tribute Tree, part of an MU legacy gift program that allows for purchase of a campus tree in honor of a special person, organization or event. A bronze plaque alongside the pretty fir tree reads, “This tree is in memory of Thomas Richard Gray, BA’62, a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend, general manager KOMU TV 8, 1974-1998; journalism honor medal, 1999; Columbia co-citizen of the year with his wife, Susan, 1993.

Susan’s husband Tom Gray passed away in the spring of 2016. The family felt memorializing his life and the many contributions he made to the lives of others with a Tribute Tree was perfect because of their heartfelt connections to the campus.

Susan has lived in Columbia since 1946, the year her father Wilbur “Sparky” Stalcup became the MU basketball Tiger’s head coach. The family lived on campus and Susan attended elementary school at the University Lab School next to Jesse Hall.

As a physical education major at MU, Susan met and teamed up with Tom Gray, an economics major from Joplin, Mo., to be part of a skit for Savitar Frolics. They decided they made a good team and married in 1961.

Tom Gray

Tom Gray on a family trip to the Gasconade River.

After graduating, Tom worked in the MU business office — located in Jesse Hall — for 10 years, and both of the Gray’s daughters, Genny and Courtney, also attended the University Lab School. Tom went on to be the manager of University-owned KOMU-TV for 25 years. Among her many other endeavors, Susan was a part of the Show-Me State Games staff from 1990 -1995, working from Jesse Hall.

By the fall of 2015, Tom’s illness had progressed to the point it appeared it would be his last Christmas. Susan pondered what sort of meaningful gift she could give her husband of 54 years. It was Courtney’s husband Matt Gaunt, director of advancement for MU libraries, who suggested Susan consider a Tribute Tree. She liked the idea and got in touch with MU.

“Ellen McLain [with MU advancement] did a good job of explaining the program,” Susan said. “Matt and Courtney went on campus with me to look at trees. We looked at trees all around Jesse. The Korean fir was almost the first tree we looked at. There are three or four others but I knew it was the one.

“Tom had the famous writer and poet Dr. John Neihardt as a professor. Tom remembered talking to Dr. Neihardt as he sat on the benches outside Jesse Hall conversing with students and staff. Tom had great memories of his time at MU,” Susan said.

Susan’s granddaughter Emily took photos of the tree and Susan had them framed.

“I presented the framed photos to Tom on Christmas Day, ” she said. “He was quite overcome. He said it was the loveliest gift he’d ever received.”

Susan and Tom visited the tree on several occasions before he died.

“Tom could really appreciate the tree,” Susan said. “When we selected it, I didn’t know about its blue pinecones, which made it even more special.

“And it keeps on being special,” she added. “We have a lot of friends and it’s in a nice place for them to visit. I can see it from the window of the [Reynolds] alumni center when I’m there for lunch.”

Susan hasn’t decided what to do for a Christmas card this year, but looks forward to a longstanding Gray family tradition — selecting a fresh fir tree from Timber View Tree Farm for Christmas. She said that tradition was part of what sold her on the Korean fir as Tom’s Tribute Tree.

Korean Fir (Abies koreana)

At a mature height of 15-30 ft., the slow-growing Korean fir is a relatively small conifer. Native to South Korea, it maintains a pyramidal shape and annually bears three-inch blue/purple cones that stand upright on its branches, turning tan as they ripen. The tree grows in zones 5-7 and prefers full sun.

Story by Jan Wiese-Fales