One of the wonderful things about the holiday season is pulling out of storage those Christmas tree
decorations that we have all had for years as they stir memories of Christmas’ past. There are the ornaments that have been passed down from generation to generation that we remember hanging on trees at our parents’ house. There are the “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments that we got so many, many years ago that bring us back to a time when our children were so young.
It is with that same idea of remembrance and tradition, with a bit of a twist, that Leigh Ann Akard and her employees at the Akard True Value proudly display their “Veterans Tree” each year.
For those unfamiliar with the “Veterans Tree”, it is a large 12’ tree that has stood near the front of Akard’s True Value store for the past 10 years. What makes this tree unusual is the decorations. You see, it is decorated every year entirely with photographs that have been collected over the years of local veterans.
The “Veterans Tree” began with a simple desire by Leigh Ann Akard along with one of the employees, Joe Hollingsworth, to do something patriotic for the holidays. Shortly after 9/11, the Zionsville Lions Club collected photos of local veterans for a large wall of tribute that was displayed at the annual Fall Festival. After the Fall Festival ended, the photos were stored without having any specific idea as to what they would do with them in the future.
Somehow Leigh Ann and Joe got the idea to put the photographs on a Christmas tree and display it in the middle of the store. Through the years, they have expanded the number of photos on the tree from approximately 24 to over 100 by encouraging local residents to contribute photos of themselves or their loved ones.
Initially all the photos were decorated with a particular ribbon and then hung on the tree. After the tree had been up for a while, they noticed that photos with a different type of ribbon began to appear on the tree. That is how they found out that people were coming in and quietly adding pictures to the tree on their own without assistance from Akard employees.
As people brought in more and more photos, they also began to collect more and more stories behind the photographs. For example, Leigh Ann recalls a mother that came in to drop off a photo of her son who was stationed in Afghanistan. The mother told Leigh Ann that she just wanted a place to visit her son while he was away at war. Photos on the tree range from WWII veterans to those that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among local notables with photos on the tree is Orland Coleman, Ralph Stacey and Dr. Jim Haines.
Carolyn Hadley, head cashier of the store, is the unofficial curator of the tree. It is Carolyn that actually places the pictures on the tree each year. As head cashier, many times it is Carolyn who meets and talks with the people wanting to contribute a photo to the tree. Carolyn is careful to try to keep the pictures in the same area of the tree year after year so that people can easily locate the pictures that are important to them.
Every year as Carolyn begins the process of unpacking the photos and decorating the tree, she enjoys being reminded of the people and the stories that make up this remarkable tree, just as those who contributed the pictures enjoy coming in to remember the people in those photographs.
To contribute a photo of yourself or a loved one to the tree, you can drop it off at the store or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.