This Texas Exes Chapter Plants a Tree for Every Longhorn Football Win

About 60 miles west of Houston is Bellville, a place some 4,000 people call home. It’s the county seat of Austin County and not far from Brenham—famous for being the home of Blue Bell Creameries.

“It’s a small town, so we bump into most of the people during the day,” says longtime local Ernie Koy Jr., BA ’66, Life Member.

If you’re a die-hard UT football fan, that name might ring a bell. The Koy family is a bit of a sports dynasty. Ernie Jr. was part of the 1963 Texas Longhorn football team, the first team in UT history to win a national championship, before he played for six years in the NFL with the New York Giants. His father, Ernie Koy Sr., was a UT football and baseball legend in the 1930s, and his brother, Ted Koy, was part of UT football’s 1969 national championship team.

Now 76, Ernie Jr. remains an active part of the Longhorn community. On a drizzly Thursday in February, he and other members of the Texas Exes Austin County Chapter lug bags of mulch and 10 live oak trees to Bellville’s elementary, middle, and high schools and start planting. The group has been planting trees together in Bellville for seven years—Ernie Jr. has been there every time.

The number of trees the Austin County Chapter plants each year is based on something unpredictable: the number of football victories UT garnered the preceding fall. Meaning this year, the chapter happily doubled their efforts from a few years back, when they planted only five trees after the Longhorns’ 2016 season. The leafy live oaks, which cost $35 each from Lucky Tree Farm, are around 8 feet tall. And though the number of trees has changed over the years, the idea has always been to plant where they are most needed, like a newly built park or barren patches of school grounds.

The initiative is part of Project Worldwide, a national service initiative created by the Texas Exes and UT’s Department of Diversity and Community Engagement in 2012 and carried out every February. This year, more than 50 chapters participated. The San Diego Chapter, adorned in burnt orange, spent a day picking up Styrofoam and glass from Tourmaline Beach. Members of the Mexico City Chapter distributed clothing and hygiene kits at a local hospital. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain Chapter served dinner to members of the homeless community.

For the Austin County Chapter’s Project Worldwide chair, Erik Haugen, BBA ’93, Life Member, planting trees has been a way to beautify the place where he grew up. Haugen was a student in the  Bellville school district before enrolling at UT. After getting his degree in marketing, he found a job in Houston, where he and his wife lived until they decided to slow life down and move back to Haugen’s hometown. Now, his children attend the same school district he did. He says that planting trees is a way to serve the schools—and remind students that Texas Exes are active in their community, and committed to giving back.

“It’s going to make the schools a prettier place, because now we have 10 new trees on the school grounds,” Ernie Jr. says. After planting some trees  by the tennis court at Bellville High School this year, Ernie Jr. says the tennis coach was overjoyed.  “[She] had all her tennis people come over and take a big picture of us planting trees there because they were so appreciative,” he says.

Ernie Jr., too, is revisiting his past by planting trees. Generations of his family have lived in Bellville, working as ranchers and farmers. The old high school that he once attended is now the administration building. “That building was built kind of in the mid 1930s, so a lot of those trees died,” he explains. A few years ago, the chapter replaced them. Though these days Ernie Jr. is retired from his banking job and considers himself a “gentleman farmer and rancher,” he has no plans to retire from tree planting with the Texas Exes any time soon. “As long as I can, I’ll keep going,” he says.

Haugen says there are still plenty of places at Bellville schools that are in need of trees, and the project will continue in the future. “This project beautifies the city,” Haugen says. “It’s a way to give back to the schools and show the kids that Texas Exes are alive and out there in the community.” Who knows—if Texas Football keeps up the winning seasons, Bellville might just become the most beautiful town in Texas.

Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel

 
 
 

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