Aaron DePaolo ’18 is the first recipient of a President’s Endowed Scholarship funded by one Aggie’s ingenious idea to nurture and sell Century Tree seedlings.
With wide trunks and thick roots, live oak trees are known to endure the test of time—many live for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Their deep, sturdy roots ensure that they survive harsh changes in seasonal temperatures and eventually mature into majestic giants that shade and nurture surrounding life.
Much like the live oak tree, College Station resident Andy Duffie ’78 has a passion for nurturing the life that surrounds him. In 2008, Duffie started the Aggie Century Tree Project, an idea to raise money for Aggie scholarships by harvesting acorns from Texas A&M’s Century Tree, nurturing its seedlings and selling its offspring. Since the project’s start, Duffie has raised more than $150,000.
With a portion of these funds, he endowed a $100,000 President’s Endowed Scholarship (PES) through the Texas A&M Foundation that supports the education of its first recipient, Aaron DePaolo ’18.
Duffie’s fascination with the Century Tree began when he served as a campus tour guide during his time as a marketing major at Texas A&M. “I’ve always been a history buff,” he said, “but there is nothing I loved more than teaching campus visitors about the history and traditions surrounding the greatest university in the world.”
Recently, Duffie learned that the iconic tree, planted as a test seedling in 1891 on the northwest side of campus on a former Corps of Cadets drill field, was part of an experiment in the Texas A&M horticulture department to determine which type of tree would grow best in the soil near Old Main.
Among the trees planted, including softwood, hardwood and conifer varieties, the live oak species stood the test of time. As the campus around the tree changed, the Century Tree remained an enduring piece of Texas A&M’s landscape. In 2011, it was even named an official Famous Tree of Texas by the Texas Forest Service, making it one of only three trees to receive the designation over the past 40 years.
During a visit to campus for his 30th class reunion in September 2008, Duffie noticed that the Century Tree was carrying its annual harvest of autumn acorns. “That’s when it came to me,” he said. “What if I could get these acorns to sprout?”
On a whim, Duffie collected a couple of the acorns to take back to his home, but when none of these sprouted, he realized the acorns weren’t mature.
Upon another visit to campus in October 2010, Duffie decided to try again and spent six hours over the course of two days collecting nearly 3,000 acorns—since only one acorn in five will sprout. After planting and nourishing them, 530 sprouted into mini replicas of the Century Tree.
Duffie spent the next two years giving these seedlings the tender loving care they required. “Growing trees isn’t rocket science,” he said. “It just takes dedication and time.” After more than 730 days, the nearly 6-foot-tall trees were ready for delivery and the Century Tree Project was fully underway.
Through Facebook, Duffie sold all 530 trees to Aggie families across Texas, who purchased them as gifts for occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, memorials and weddings. More than 100 trees found a home with Aggie couples who were engaged beneath the Century Tree’s 75-foot branches.
Today, offspring of the Century Tree can be found from Virginia to Washington State, and even in places like the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, the Texas A&M at Galveston campus, Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham, Texas, and at the home of former Texas A&M head football coach R.C. Slocum. Duffie also plans to dedicate a tree at Texas A&M’s new satellite campus in McAllen, Texas, in the near future.
Most of the trees were shipped to their new homes via UPS, but Duffie spent three weekends in September 2012 personally delivering others across Texas. “My favorite part of the process was seeing the look on people’s faces when they realized they had their own piece of Aggieland,” he said.
While sales from the 2010 seedlings funded his President’s Endowed Scholarship in 2012, Duffie continues to raise and sell seedlings to support Texas A&M students. In 2015, his tree sales funded an Aggie Ring Scholarship through The Association of Former Students. Through the marketing of seedlings from the Century Tree in 2016 and 2017, he plans to endow a Sul Ross Scholarship and a global study scholarship through the Foundation, in addition to other endowed scholarships of his choice in later years.
For DePaolo, the first recipient of Duffie’s President’s Endowed Scholarship, the Century Tree acts as a reminder of the support he’s received at Texas A&M. “I feel lucky having a scholarship that stems from an Aggie tradition and embodies the Aggie family,” DePaolo said.
An individual or group can establish a President’s Endowed Scholarship with a one-time gift of $100,000 or through a series of installments over a period of up to five years. The gift provides a stipend for one student over four years, plus a bonus for a study abroad experience. Since the Foundation manages the endowment to pay for the current student’s scholarship while simultaneously providing for the long-term growth of the principle, the gift supports students in perpetuity.
“Without scholarships like this, many smart kids wouldn’t get the opportunity to attend college,” DePaolo said. “On top of that, scholarships are incentive for students to work hard to keep a high GPA, which bears great resemblance to the workforce, where the better you perform, the more you’re rewarded.”
DePaolo first met Duffie in 2014 on the day of the Foundation’s annual reception for scholars and donors in the PES program. Instead of meeting DePaolo at the event, Duffie went out of his way to give the mechanical engineering major a ride.
“Mr. Duffie made it a point to connect with me,” DePaolo said. “He went above and beyond to introduce me to a lot of important people and even invited me to a dinner later that day.”
DePaolo and Duffie maintain their relationship by periodically reuniting for lunch on campus.
“Receiving a prestigious scholarship like this has a two-fold impact,” DePaolo said. “On one hand, not having the burden of tuition costs gives my family peace of mind. But the real benefit of receiving this scholarship is having a great donor like Mr. Duffie, who is an ‘Old Ag’ with a real commitment to Texas A&M and the future of the university.”
Like his dad and brother, DePaolo joined the Corps of Cadets upon arriving at Texas A&M. As a member of company A-1 (Animal A), the oldest company in the Corps, he thrives on being part of such a prestigious group.
“I am challenged every day,” he said. “I get the opportunity to lead my peers and develop my subordinates, which prepares me for a career in a high-tier company.”
Dedication is key for DePaolo, who has maintained a 4.0 GPA for his first three semesters at Texas A&M and plans to become a civilian contractor for the U.S. Army post-graduation.
“It’s students like Aaron who remind me of why I do this,” Duffie said. “There’s nothing better than to be able to help a fellow Aggie toward the brighter future they deserve.”
In recent years, the Century Tree has been nicknamed the “sweetheart tree,” with hundreds of Aggie marriage proposals and weddings taking place beneath its branches every year.
According to Aggie folklore, if two lovers pass beneath the tree’s large, vine-like branches, they are destined to be wed. Similarly, if a couple becomes engaged under the tree’s picturesque leaves, their marriage will last forever. But those who dare to walk beneath the tree alone are doomed to be alone forever.
Though Aggies disagree about the origin and validity of the legend, Duffie believes the “alone” part of the myth emerged only in the last 15 years or so. “If this were true,” he said, “I would be one lonely man, because I am probably alone under the Century Tree more than anyone else.”
A President's Endowed Scholarship can be established by an individual or group with a one-time gift of $100,000 or with a series of gifts over a period of up to five years. The endowment established by the gift funds a stipend for one student for four years, plus a bonus for a study abroad experience.