Former Speaker Philip Gunn address those gathered at the Capitol at the tree planting ceremony. (Photo from Speaker Jason White’s X)
The traditional tree dedication is reserved for outgoing members of leadership in the Mississippi House and Senate.
On Thursday, a ceremony was held in honor of former Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. A 15-foot Red Oak tree was planted on the South side of the Capitol lawn in honor of his tenure serving as Speaker in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
“When you look at this tree don’t just think about Philip Gunn; think about all the people that supported me and helped me and helped us grow and helped us become what we see above the ground,” Gunn told those in attendance. “Philip Gunn is nothing without the staff who supported me, the legislators who worked with me, the family who loved me, and the God who blessed me, this marvelous light.”
Gunn served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2012 until the new term began this January. He was the first Republican Speaker since Reconstruction. Gunn, who chose not to seek re-election in 2023, is credited with legislation that helped overturn Roe v. Wade, change the state flag, and provide historic tax cuts to Mississippians.
The tree planting tradition is reserved for any outgoing or retiring Lieutenant Governors or Speakers in the Mississippi Legislature. The exiting lawmakers are given the opportunity to request a commemorative tree be planted on the Capitol grounds, which can be any tree the honoree chooses.
When it came time for Speaker Gunn to select his tree, he joked to the crowd on Thursday that he was encouraged to select something other than a Magnolia, as there are currently a large number of such trees in the area around the Capitol. Gunn selected a Red Oak tree.
Traditionally, the tree would be planted on the side of the building in which that honoree served.
“The DFA staff and landscaping consultants will assist in selecting a space for the tree planting,” said Brenda Davis, curator of the State Capitol building. “For example, we had lost a fairly large tree in an area of the South lawn on the House side, so when the conversation started about where Speaker Gunn’s Red Oak should go, we thought, we have the perfect place.”
Over the years, other lawmakers have selected trees to be planted on the grounds. Tim Ford (D), who served as Speaker from 1988 until 2004, has a Magnolia planted in his honor. Former Lt. Governor Amy Tuck (R) is represented by an Oak Tree while former Speaker Billy McCoy (D) specifically requested a Yellow Poplar to be planted on the grounds.
Lawmakers who are leaving these leadership positions are given the option not to have a tree planted, and coincidentally, all of those who have are individuals who did not seek future office.
Former Speaker Gunn used the tree as a metaphor in his speech at the ceremony, drawing focus to the roots and structure of a tree and the light that makes it grow. He pointed to his staff and fellow lawmakers as roots to the tree, but his family as the main root for him during his service to the state.
“Part of my motivation to serve was to try and make the world in which you [in reference to his family] a better place. Part of my motivation to serve was to try and make it a place where you can thrive and raise your families and worship God,” said Gunn. “I want you to know I did my best and that I love each one of you more than life itself and hope one day that my grandchildren will bring their grandchildren to see Pop’s tree.”
Gunn also paid tribute to his faith by pointing to God as the light for the tree, that makes all good things grow.
“You’ve got to have light to make a tree grow. I believe God is light, there is no darkness in Him at all. God has been the light that has guided us as we have sought to serve Him here at the Capitol,” said Gunn. “Without His light none of what we have accomplished would have happened.”
Gunn hopes when people look upon the Red Oak, they remember the work of all the legislators who served with him during his tenure.
“It’s been an honor to serve with these legislators for the last 12 years. Nothing of what has been accomplished could have been done without them. These are the men and women who had the courage and strength to make these things happen,” said Gunn. “I believe our work together has made Mississippi a better place and we have improved our state over the last 12 years.”
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