Many people were left traumatized and shattered by the April 19, 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. As they searched for answers about the deaths of loved ones, they struggled with the question of what they could do to recover from this devastating event. One man in particular, Charles Van De Wiele, had an idea of something that could be done to honor the memory of the victims of this tragedy. With passion and commitment that swayed state organizations to support his efforts, he began a massive endeavor to plan redbud trees in the flat spaces along the Turner turnpike as a living memorial to the bombing victims.
Like so many others, Van De Wiele had lost a good friend in the bombing and knew of several associates who had lost relatives as well. He felt his plan to construct a living memorial would serve as a testimony to the victims, their families and the spirit of the people in Oklahoma. He chose the redbud tree because of its symbolism as the Oklahoma state tree as well as it natural beauty. When he first presented his idea, the Kiwanis Club of Tulsa unanimously approved of the concept. Van De Wiele turned to an urban forestry expert from Oklahoma State University for guidance in his undertaking.
Van De Wiele spearheaded the campaign to find corporate sponsors for the project. In March 1996, the first 500 redbud trees were planted and an additional 1,000 trees planted in the fall of that same year. In 1997, 700 more were added and 1,025 were planted in 1998. The project continues with the goal of having 5,000 redbud trees lining the Turnpike. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, after much lobbying and persuasion by VanDeWiele in support of the project, is an enthusiastic partner to the project and has contributed a great deal to the cause.
Since the project has a great deal of personal meaning, Van De Wiele spends countless hours taking care of the redbud trees that are currently planted. Even though he is involved in other community projects, he refers to the tree planting as his hobby and often spends weekends checking on the trees and taking care of them. Recently, Van De Wiele decided that the Turnpike should have a sign to inform passing motorists of the significance of the trees lining the highway. He designed and commissioned a 7-foot rose granite monument that has a bronze casting of the bombed out building on it and the names of 168 victims and the project's financial supports. The monument was dedicated by Governor Frank Keating on April 14, 1997.
It is clear the Charles Van De Wiele has laid the foundation for a memorial that will last for many years to come, reminding all those who pass by of the tragic bombing and those who lost their lives in the process. The way that he has chosen to memorialize the victims and their families is such that Oklahoma residents can be proud that life has grown where life was once taken away. He has shown a spirit of service and selflessness to this project that is virtually unmatched.