UW-Green Bay’s Shoe Tree Will Take Root in a New Form

Photo of Shoe Tree
Shoe Tree in winter

Through the years, every pair of shoes (and a few other random items) tossed in UW-Green Bay’s “Shoe Tree” had a story to tell. In a tradition dating back decades, soon-to-be or just-graduates tossed a pair of shoes into a tree, signifying a joyful rite of passage… while leaving a bit of themselves behind.

The shoe tree by design doesn’t have a designated caretaker. The shoes sway in the wind until they don’t… falling to the ground before being gathered by the groundskeepers who toss them, eventually ending up in a landfill. But the point isn’t in the loss of the shoes, it is in the gain of the accomplishment—for a University that has its identity in helping first-generation college students achieve their dream of a college education, it signaled a celebration—a literal toss of the mortarboards, but with shoes.

The problem is the shoes; hundreds upon hundreds of shoes, are killing the trees.

Shoe Tree

Shoe Tree

Shoe Tree

Shoe Tree

Shoe Tree

Shoe Tree

Longtime Director of the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity and Biology Professor Bob Howe explains, “When shoes are thrown into a tree and stay there over time, wind and other elements scrape the shoes and laces against the tree. This rubs off the bark, making the tree susceptible to disease and insect damage. UW-Green Bay is on its third shoe tree after the first was struck by lightning and the second died by disease. Unfortunately, our third shoe tree is now dead and continuing this tradition will kill other trees.”

As a university committed to return to its founding Eco U “roots,” it’s time to address the impact and transform this tradition.

The solution will be a tree mural at a yet determined but prominent location on the Green Bay Campus. Instead of graduating students throwing shoes into a tree to represent leaving a piece of their “soul/sole” behind, students will “leave their (literal) fingerprint” as a leaf on a branch of the tree mural to represent their unique imprint and growth on campus. It also symbolizes joining the “intellectual family tree/intellectual lineage” of Eco U alumni. It will provide another location for graduation photos while building on the symbolism of the shoe tree and aligning with UW-Green Bay’s sustainable values.

“The new tradition of the tree mural allows us to keep a fun and meaningful graduation tradition going while also remaining true to UW-Green Bay’s Eco U heritage, which is incredibly important to alumni and students alike,” says Alumni Director Kari Moody. The hope is to have a tree mural installed for the Fall 2022 graduating class, and perhaps, opportunities for alumni who return to campus to also leave their mark.

After May 2022 Commencement, the current tree will be cut down for safety reasons, and current UW-Green Bay students can look forward to a new evolution of expression—one that honors the spirit of the tradition, without the damage.

The History and Origination of the Shoe Tree(s)

Two guys, and a fun idea
Reported by alumnus “Circa 1986″ or so, two guys named Dave Gardner and Chris Schickowski were done with their Friday or Saturday night activities on or about Arlene B. Walter Residence Hall. After a night out, Chris threw the first pair in the tree just because it was there. And they were worn out anyway. Nothing special…no lofty post-graduation expectations or anything like that. And then it just kept going.”

Schickowski confirms the story. “Yes, Dave and I started the Shoe Tree tradition.  I believe my pair were Reeboks, and Dave threw up a pair of old high tops. He needed the ankle support, LOL. I hope you won’t use this admission of guilt to sue us on behalf of the University!”

Winslow Recalls a Slightly Different Story
In an interview with Press-Gazette reporter Kendra Meinert, the Associate Director of Operations at University Union Grant Winslow, who has worked at UWGB since 1996, had heard a similar story, and added some additional context… “It’s a rite of passage that makes an indelible impression when UWGB ambassadors bring visiting students to the tree. It’s the one thing that every student remembers from their campus tour. ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we have the opportunity to throw our shoes in there,’” he said. “Some students pick out the shoes they’re going to throw in their freshman year. I’ve heard several students say, ‘I’ve known which shoes are going in that tree for three years now.’”

How did it start? As Winslow recalls this urban legend, “Two roommates were walking back from the old Phoenix Sports Center after intramural basketball. One of the guys had his basketball shoes tied together and slung over his shoulder. To be funny, his roommate grabbed them and threw them in the tree. They got hung up. As other students walked by and noticed them, they thought it would be amusing to do the same. College students being college students, even an orphaned loveseat or bike found its way into the tree over the years.

“The origins are a little bit blurry as to when it went from just a goofy thing to do to actually becoming tradition,” Winslow said. “By the time I started here in ’96, it was tradition that as a graduating senior you throw your shoes in the tree.”

Winslow has own ‘Giving Tree’ Story
In 2002 when the original Shoe Tree went down in a storm, Grant Winslow had the forethought to preserve some slabs off the trunk, which he stored in Student Life storage, for, oh, 15 years. He said that through the years he was reminded occasionally by others of the large piece of oak taking up room and

Grant Winslow with a table crafted from the original Shoe Tree

collecting dust. When some remodeling occurred, and it ended up in Winslow’s office, he decided to take it home and spend two weeks sanding, staining and sealing it, and building a base. It now sits in the Student Life Office as a showpiece and a reminder of one of UW-Green Bay’s longest-standing traditions. And we’re sure it’s enough to make Shel Silverstein proud. Why the effort?

“In 2002 when the tree went down, I had only been working here for six years and we had so few true campus traditions. It was horrible that one of the few we did have had been taken away from us. I remember the students that were on campus that summer walking around saying ‘did you hear? The Shoe Tree went down last night.’ They were truly upset. There was talk of finding a new location but I wanted to make sure that a piece of the original tree survived in some way. Later that year when the new tree was dedicated some alumni came up to throw their shoes in the tree before a basketball game. Alumnus Aaron Richardson ’00, Business Administration, asked me if there were any more pieces left. I can’t remember if I found a log that came from a big branch or a bunch of slices or ‘cookies’ and gave them to him. He showed back up a while later with a Phoenix carved from the piece. I have that in my office.”

An indelible impression
Selected 2011 Student Commencement Speaker (and Phoenix basketball star) Kayla Tetschlag said she was six years old when she decided she might want to attend UW-Green Bay, and it was a little thing that caught her attention. Tagging along on a visit to campus, she noticed the “Shoe Tree,” an old oak adorned with dozens if not hundreds of old sneakers, casual footwear, dress shoes. She was both fascinated and truly perplexed.

“I wondered, ‘Do all the students here go around barefoot?’” she recalled for an audience of about 4,500 at UW-Green Bay’s Kress Events Center as she delivered the address. In her brief remarks, she focused on how the little things in life can often lead to big things, or bring deep satisfaction. She also said that a few days ago she, too, joined the Shoe Tree tradition and knotted the laces on her old Nike high-tops and sent them out on a limb, for history’s sake, symbolizing the fact she and other grads are beginning down a new path, post-college.

Former Chancellor carves gift from original shoe tree
In December of 2002, UW-Green Bay former UW-Green Bay Chancellor Bruce Shepard presented a bowl made from the original, but fallen, Shoe Tree, adorned with the University’s emblem to the

Bowl from Shoe Tree crafted by Chancellor Shepard

University’s 20,000th graduate, Leanne Shaha. Woodworking had been a hobby of his for two decades, prior to the gift.

“The oak tree was a big tradition on campus and this will be the first graduating class that won’t have that oak tree to throw their shoes up on, so we thought we’d pass along a piece of the tree to one of our graduates,” he said in a story by the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Malmberg celebrated UW-Green Bay’s 100th commencement with platinum shoes
In December of 2019, Student Speaker Hannah Malmberg tossed platinum-coated shoes into the “shoe

Malmberg with her platinum shoes

Malmberg with her platinum shoes

tree” on campus. Malmberg explained the uniqueness of her shoes. “So, my shoes are a pair of shoes I actually wore on my first day here, they were this nice white pair of shoes that got a little dirty over the years, but then we spray painted them platinum to celebrate the 100th commencement ceremony.”

Moving Forward with Sustainability
UW-Green Bay is making a concerted effort to return to its Eco U roots. April is Earth Month and UW-Green Bay has a number of activities planned to engage campus and community employees. Get involved.

“Rituals offer us a chance to create meaning and it’s an important part of students’ celebration of their accomplishments,” said Sustainability Coordinator Daniela Beall. “It’s also important that we don’t turn a blind eye to the unintended sacrifice of trees in the process. We hope that students will find as much, if not more, significance in the symbolism of their unique fingerprint representing new growth on the family tree of Eco U.”

Moody agrees.

“We hope everyone understands who we are, where we have come as an institution, and most importantly, what we want to stand for in the years ahead. I hope others are as thrilled as I am about focusing on re-staking our claim as Eco U in the years ahead.”

Explore UW-Green Bay’s sustainability efforts.