Support for Davidson College Arboretum a Boon for Beauty and the Environment

Bright yellow tree on campus

John Saunders ’71 picked up a newspaper near his Lexington, Kentucky, home and learned that a local university had earned a spot on a list of The Most Beautiful College Campuses in the country.

Curious about the list, Saunders visited the College Rover website and found his beloved alma mater held the #1 spot. The ranking, tabulated based on the use of the word “beautiful” in Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, conveyed that more than 75 percent of Davidson College reviews included the word.

Saunders wasn’t surprised to see the Davidson he remembered recognized for its stunning campus.

“As a student, I loved the active campus, but my favorite thing was to walk through the athletic fields to the wooded areas, and that’s where I would study,” he said. “I’d carry all my note cards and walk around trying to memorize them.”

Saunders’ parents both loved to garden, so he grew up with a natural appreciation for plants and nature. The University of Kentucky had pasture land just behind his childhood home where he would fly kites and play baseball. That property is now the UK arboretum. 

John Saunders ’71, M.D., with portrait of his father, Joseph Saunders, M.D., and son and fellow Wildcat Justin Saunders ’02, M.D.

John Saunders ’71, M.D., with portrait of his father, Joseph Saunders, M.D., and son and fellow Wildcat  Justin Saunders ’02, M.D.

“After seeing the College Rover ranking of Davidson and thinking back to my own memories on campus, I reached out to the college development office,” Saunders said. “I remembered how the trees on campus were tagged, but I wanted to learn more. I had always given to The Davidson Trust, but this time I wanted to think about supporting the arboretum.” 

In 1982, President Emeritus Sam Spencer ’40 received a letter from the director of national arboretums in Washington, D.C., and by 1986 the campus officially earned the distinction. Jamie Moore, the college’s director of grounds, oversees the tagging system, database and general preservation. More than 3,000 trees and shrubs have been tagged. 

Fall foliage trees on campus
Blooming Trees and Students Lounging and Walking on Lawn

“Our tagging system used to be done entirely by hand, which is incredibly time consuming,” Moore explained. “We had to stamp the metal, letter by letter. It was hard to see each letter as it was stamped, so if we made a mistake, we’d start again. About a year ago, we moved to a real-time, electronic system, so now we’re able to enter all the necessary information on an app, standing right next to the tree. Anything over 12” in diameter is tagged.” 

Saunders’ gift launches the creation of the first-ever arboretum endowment, which will help keep the campus beautiful. 

“We incur significant costs throughout a year, especially if we have to remove trees due to storms or root decay, but this gift will primarily go toward our tree preservation efforts and ensure we continue with proper pruning techniques that are so important. Everything we do on the grounds is connected — the trees drop leaves, and if we don’t get them up quickly, it affects seed germination of the grass and so on. Every part of our work has an impact on the other parts.” 

Person in a chair reading beneath tree on campus

Saunders grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and his parents encouraged him to go to Davidson. They took him on campus visits as early as eighth grade.

“When it was finally time to apply, I talked about some different schools here or there, but ended up being accepted Early Decision to Davidson,” Saunders said. “It was the best four years of my life.” 

While the beautiful campus ranked near the top of fond memories for Saunders, he made many  as a Wildcat. He played intramural sports and stayed busy with courses. The pre-med major, who always planned to become a physician like his father, also signed up for the Humanities Program. 

“My advisor actually told me not to do it,” Saunders said. “He said it would be too much with the pre-med courses. Back then, the humes program was six days a week, two hours a day, for two years. Quite a commitment. I had Latin class Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. But I learned so much and was glad I did it.”

Fall Campus Beauty Students Walking on Path
white flowers on tree against campus building

Another defining experience was his involvement with Sigma Chi and the experience of losing their charter. 

“We wanted to initiate Mike Maloy ’70, but in those days, the fraternity would not allow Black members,” he explained. “We were committed to it, though, so the organization came and took our charter away. We stayed in the house, kept our faculty advisor and hired our own cook, even though we weren’t Sigma Chis anymore. We couldn't rush, so by my senior year, there were only about 16 of us left. We still had meals, hosted parties … in the end, we sold our furniture, divided the money and that was that. It was still the right decision, of course.” 

A tree with bright fall colors between two trees with green leaves on campus

Saunders, an ophthalmologist, is grateful for the experiences Davidson brought into his life, and he enjoys staying connected more than 50 years later. Just recently, he attended a talk in Florida by Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Shelley Rigger. 

“Of course I was at Davidson before women were there, and I loved learning about campus today,” he said. “It’s a totally different environment from when I was there.” 

One thing that will never change, however? The beautiful campus — a national arboretum — where students can learn, relax and wander. 

Davidson College Arboretum