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In Auburn, the university and city form tight community

Thursday, August 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:02 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Auburn, Ala., known as the "Loveliest Village on the Plains," lives up to its nickname. The eight beliefs of the Auburn Creed help solidify a sense of community among residents, students and alumni.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.

AUBURN, Ala. —  The list is on the glass door of "The Villager," a store on College Avenue, less than half a block from Toomer's Corner.

"How to build community," it reads. "Turn off your TV. Look up when you are walking. Know your neighbors. Use the library. Share what you have. Play together."

These are just a few of the instructions.

In many places, these would be nothing more than empty suggestions, swept away generations ago by our new lifestyle where the TV is never off and the reason people don't look up while they are walking is because they're too busy texting, tweeting or Facebook-ing.

In Auburn, they've taken these suggestions to heart.

Sometimes a nickname fits the city, other times it seems overly contrived or flat-out untrue.

But Auburn, known as "The Loveliest Village on the Plains," lives up to its billing.

It isn't about architecture, though the buildings in Auburn are certainly pretty. It isn't about landscaping, though campus is kept in pristine condition. It isn't about a bustling music scene, delicious places to eat or athletic success, either.

It's about the people. It's about the sense of community that Auburn has fostered in its university, its residents and the city as a whole.

It's about the set of eight beliefs known as the "Auburn Creed."

It's about the look Auburn people get in their eyes when they talk about Auburn.

It's about "War Eagle."

Most of all, it's about the "Auburn family."

Just Wayne

The stone courtyard outside the Auburn First Baptist Church is buzzing.

The mid-morning sun is high in the clear Alabama sky, but a chorus of "How're y'all doin's" and "Good to see ya's" echoes like crickets at midnight.

Everyone seems to know everyone's name, and the few newcomers who do dribble in are greeted with an overwhelming warmth.

A man dressed in a tan blazer, slate gray slacks and a black tie enters the courtyard. There is something different about how the others treat him, a certain unique reverence.

But he is not the pastor. He isn't employed by the church at all, in fact.

"That's just Wayne," says Drew Smith, the unofficial head of the welcoming committee in the courtyard.

Inside a classroom in the church's annex, Wayne Flint holds court at the rear of the room before Sunday school.

"I just love your outfit," he tells one woman. "Isn't she just straight out of Saks Fifth Avenue?"

He laughs softly. This is a man at ease.

Flint is the former head of the history department at Auburn, and while he is retired from the university, he hasn't yet given up teaching. Today, Flint teaches the Sunday school class of 50 or so about the inevitability of suffering.

Although it's not a pleasant topic, the group hangs on Flint's words. He leads discussion effortlessly. This classroom is no different than the ones he occupied at Auburn beginning in 1977.

The town adores him.

"You cannot say no to him," the church's pastor Jim Evans will say later during the main service, as he names Flint as head of a committee formed to deal with the church's future. "I can think of no one better who can look back into the past but also look forward to our future."

Flint adores the town right back.

"This is a friendly, loving, kind town," Flint says. "People have a high level of respect for government and for each other."

Party on the parking deck

Everett Duke is temporarily retired from partying.

"At least until finals are over," the Auburn graduate student says.

Lucky for him, as the Auburn baseball team takes on Tennessee below, the Plainsman Parking Deck is quieter than usual.

Set just outside the stadium down the left-field line, the roof of the four-level parking structure provides Auburn baseball fans with a perfect place to enjoy both the game, and their favorite  beverages.

"No glass bottles and don't back in," Duke says. "Those are the only two rules."

For today's matinee against Tennessee, the crowd is sparse, perhaps 10 or 12 blue-and-orange clad Tigers fans have braved the afternoon heat to watch Auburn go for its first sweep of 2012.

"Normally it's shoulder to shoulder up here," Duke says. "About 100, 150 people will show up."

The deck is prepared. There are a few long-legged chairs near the wall for fans to use, as well as trash cans and a security guard to make sure everyone keeps it clean.

Duke and fellow Auburn graduate students Brent White and Brittney Rieben are among the deck's mainstays throughout the season. Like any group of zealous fans, they've got their own set of traditions.

The scoreboard in centerfield will periodically ask fans for musical requests via Twitter. The answer from Duke and Co. is always the same.

"All we want is some Seger," Duke says. "Roll Me Away."

Lately, the Auburn staff working at the stadium has obliged, and seventh-inning Seger has become a staple.

"We love to use Twitter," Duke says. "We love to light into opposing players on there."

Four stories below, the main seating bowl is nearly devoid of students. Instead, it's the city's community that supports the Tigers baseball team.

"That's Auburn," Duke says. "The school is the city and the city is the school."

War Eagle

Jon Haney speaks about Auburn the way a proud parent talks about his child. His eyes light up, his tone rises and his chest puffs.

Within 30 seconds of meeting him, it's easy to see Auburn has had a great effect on him.

He shows off the campus while whipping around in a golf cart and pointing out landmarks as if he was employed by the school's admissions office instead of its facilities department.

It's a pretty place. Nearly every building is red brick, and open grass areas meet with wide pedestrian boulevards to provide a sort of idyllic Southern university setting.

Haney attended his first Auburn football game in 1981, as a 6-year-old, and that day made a proclamation to his mother.

"I told her I would graduate from here someday," he said.

His route wasn't the traditional one. His high school grades weren't good enough to get him admitted to Auburn. But he moved the 125 miles from Gadsden to Auburn with a friend a few years after graduation.

In 2008, he finally made good on his promise to his mother.

"It took me a while, but I did it," he says with a crooked smile.

Being part of Auburn means everything to Haney. He's not alone. That's a refrain you'll hear quite a bit if you visit the Loveliest Village. At first, it sounds contrived, like Auburnites have been brainwashed into some sort of blue-and-orange cult. But when you meet someone like Haney, it becomes clear that the unconditional love students, graduates and Auburn residents feel for this place is genuine.

"Georgia has 'Bulldog nation' and Florida has 'Gator nation,'" Auburn student Drew Steverson says. "We don't have a nation. We have the 'Auburn family.'"

The family extends beyond the Auburn city limits and the Alabama state line. The school's battle cry, "War Eagle," is heard all over the nation and the world.

"War Eagle is a bond we all share instantly," Steverson says. "Once you become part of that, it will take hell or high water to break it."

When an Auburn fan is met with the phrase in a strange location, Haney says it's called a "War Eagle moment."

"I was in Washington, D.C., and my wife and I were at the Vietnam monument looking for her uncle's name. I had my Auburn hat on backwards," Haney recalls. "Out of nowhere, I get a tap on the shoulder and it's this park ranger, and he says, 'Hey man, War Eagle.' That was amazing."

Philosophy professor Kelly Jolley, who has taught at Auburn since 1991, knows another factor in Auburn's togetherness.

"This place has a remarkable hold on its graduates," Jolley says. "That it has its own creed says something about the kind of place it is."

The creed isn't just something that Auburn lists on its website for posterity. Students know it. It's carved in stone on the outside of Auburn Arena.

Steverson was able to recite most of the creed. He nailed the final line.

"... and because Auburn men and women believe in these things, I believe in Auburn and love it," he finishes.

As Haney's tour concludes, he parks the golf cart and unprompted, reflects.

"I get to live and work at the place I idolized growing up," he says. "I want my kids to feel like I do about this place."

He starts to pull away, then stops abruptly.

"I almost forgot, I brought you something," he says, backing up. He reaches into his pocket for a blue plastic wristband that says "War Eagle."

He looks up and offers a fist pound.

"War Eagle, brother," he says, and drives off.

Red-headed little brother

Mentioning Auburn without also mentioning the University of Alabama is impossible. It's like mentioning Batman without the Joker, Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader, Harry Potter without Lord Voldemort. Who is the villain depends on who you ask, but the fact is that the two are inexorably linked in a tumultuous relationship that shows no sign of ever growing less hateful. If anything, the vitriol is increasing.

Kelly Jolley grew up in Ohio, in the shadow of the of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. To him, the Auburn-Alabama "Iron Bowl" as it's known, is in a completely different spectrum of rivalry.

"I wasn't prepared for the existential depth of the hatred," Jolley says. "It's not a Saturday phenomenon, it's an all the time thing."

Auburn fans vehemently disagree with the perception that Alabama is "big brother." They fight the fact that they are viewed as some sort of "cow college," as Bear Bryant once said.

"We feel 'Bama has undue arrogance," Steverson says. "They view us as the red-headed stepchild, they feel superior. We don't stick our nose up."

Brittney Rieben from the parking deck summarized the Auburn inferiority label a little more sharply.

"That's what the uneducated masses across the state will tell you," she says.

Part of the stereotype of the rivalry exists because Alabama has medical and law schools, which Auburn does not. Instead, Auburn has strong agricultural and veterinary programs. Jolley believes there is a sort of trickle down effect from that in funding and government.

"Most of the Alabama government that went to school in the state obviously went to Alabama for law," Jolley said. "It gives Alabama a huge political advantage."

On the football field, Alabama leads the series 41-34-1, a lead that it built during the Bear Bryant-era and has seen diminish since 2000 — Auburn is 8-4 this millennium, including six straight victories from 2002-2007.

This isn't just a football rivalry, though. It extends throughout the athletic departments, even all the way to the usually friendly gymnastics mat, where the Crimson Tide hold a 104-meet win streak.

In 2011, after Tigers quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy, and Auburn won the National Championship in football, an Auburn gymnast struck the Heisman pose during her floor routine in Tuscaloosa, much to the chargrin of the fans, who booed her.

"It even goes all the way through academic departments," Jolley says. "You will not go broke underestimating the hatred. It permeates every part of the culture."

So then, it really shouldn't be surprising what happened at Toomer's Corner the weekend after the 2010 Iron Bowl, where Newton and the Tigers rallied back from a 24-point deficit in Tuscaloosa for a 28-24 victory that punched their ticket to the SEC Championship game, and later on, an undefeated season and a national championship.

But just because something's not surprising, doesn't make it any less sad.

Singing to the trees

At the corner of College and Magnolia Avenues, otherwise known as Toomer's Corner, are two majestic oak trees.

Toomer's Corner and Toomer's Oaks are the center of all things Auburn. A giant Tiger paw is painted at the intersection. After Auburn victories, the tradition is to bathe the branches of the oaks in toilet paper.

"I remember the first time I saw it after a win," Jon Haney recalls. "It looked like a damned blizzard had rolled through."

Toomer's Corner was raining toilet paper for Auburn's biggest celebration on the night of Jan. 11, 2011, when the Tigers defeated Oregon 22-19 in the BCS National Championship Game.

The name Harvey Updyke Jr. meant nothing then.

It wasn't until 16 days later, on Jan. 27, 2011, when Updyke Jr., under the alias "Al from Dadeville," called into the extremely popular Paul Finebaum sports talk show, based in Birmingham, Ala. The transcript of the end of the call is startling.

Al from Dadeville: The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Ala., because I lived 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees. I put Spike 80DF in 'em.

Finebaum: Did they die?

Al: Do what?

Finebaum: Did … they … die?

Al: They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die.

Finebaum: Is it against the law to poison a tree?

Al: Do you think I care?

Finebaum: No.

Al: I really don't! And you can tell Tammy, I hope … never mind. Roll Damn Tide!

 

The police soon figured out Al From Dadeville's true identity, and on Feb. 17, 2011, Harvey Updyke Jr. was arrested on suspicion of poisoning the two trees. Updyke Jr. pleaded not guilty to all counts for reasons of mental disease or defect.

Updyke's trial process has been high profile in Alabama — so much so that his trial was moved from June to October because too many potential jurors had been subjected to media coverage of the case. The defense has also asked for a change of venue out of Lee County (where Auburn is located) because of all the attention.

Seventeen months after the poisoning, a few pieces of toilet paper hang above in celebration of the baseball team's weekend sweep of Tennessee. It seems token. The trees do not look well.

They should be in full bloom like those that surround them. Instead, many of the branches sport yellow-brown leaves or none at all. Although the group of experts charged with keeping the trees alive are not optimistic about the future, the trees are still alive, for now. They are now protected by metal barriers. You used to be able to walk up and touch them.

Underneath the oaks, a group from the Sandhill Bible Church sings gospel songs as the sun sets. They serenade the corner with beautiful harmonies about God and life.

If the trees above them were in full bloom, it would be a perfect setting.

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.


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Comments

Tony Taylor August 19, 2012 | 7:28 a.m.

Very few people take the time to illustrate what Auburn is all about. Thank you, sir, for taking the time to do just that.

My parents were college educators and, similar to military families, every time dad got a degree we moved to a new college town. Our educational travels took us from the University of Arkansas, to Missouri Southern, University of Missouri, North Louisiana University (now ULM) then landed in Auburn in 1972.

Said all that to say this...

All that you mentioned about "Family" in the Auburn community is spot on! It's genuine and wholesome. The bond between the town, students, alumni and fans is as strong as it is unique. I'd challenge any man to find an equaled passion anywhere. At age 51 now and living in Mississippi that bond is still in place and will live inside me until my last breath. The Auburn Creed is not a motto or a mission statement, but rather a way of life that is deeply felt in the hearts of those who've experienced the Loveliest Village on the Plains. That family bond is what gives the frequent "War Eagle Moment" it's significance.

We're really glad to have The University of Missouri as a new member of our conference. We'd also invite you to come down and see us when the Tigers meet the Tigers. You'll be welcomed into our community with politeness and southern hospitality that includes sharing food and drinks while tailgating before AND after the game. I speak with confidence for all of the Auburn Family that, with the exception of while the players are between the lines, it will be the most enjoyable fall Saturday you can experience on the road in the SEC.

Y'all come see us and War Eagle!

(Report Comment)
Ken Hammett August 20, 2012 | 7:29 a.m.

Thanks for the great article about the Auburn Family. Two points to make: 1. The colors are usually referred to as orange and blue around here, not blue and orange. and 2. When the Toomers Oak Trees were poisoned, there was a great outpouring of support from our otherwise arch-rival Alabama. A group in Tuscaloosa set up a fund to donate toward preservation of the beloved trees, which have stood at the main campus entrance for some say 130 years. Later , when tornados ravaged Tuscaloosa, a group from Auburn set up a similar fund to help alleviate the terrible destruction in Tuscaloosa. So we might be rivals on Saturdays, and to some extent, every other day of the year, but when the chips are down, we are still family in the State of Alabama and within the families who have spread across the world. Welcome to the SEC, and "y'all come".

(Report Comment)
Larry Wit August 21, 2012 | 9:31 a.m.

As a Mizzou alum and an Auburn professor for more nearly 37 years, I enjoyed your article a great deal. You clearly captured what is so special about Auburn. I am proud to be a twice Tiger.

(Report Comment)

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