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photo: xtreme
  Carrie Burton with the tree she and her dad planted on her first day of first grade. Soon after, her father was killed in a helicopter crash. Now, 12 years later, she will soon start her senior year in high school.
Tree they planted together is a reminder of girl's dad

The beginning of the school year will mean the end of a tradition for 17-year-old Carrie Burton.

The Lincoln County teen starts off each school year with a picture - a photograph of her beside the pine tree she planted with her dad on her first day of first grade in 1991. She starts her senior year Aug. 8, and the tree has been there for the journey, even though her dad couldn't be.

A few months after Carrie and her father, Matt Burton, planted the pine seedling, he was killed in a helicopter crash in Alaska. "I don't remember very much about him at all," she said. "I was so little."

The tree provides a tangible reminder.

The tree started out as one of three seedlings given away as a promotion at a McDonald's restaurant on Washington Road. Carrie's mom, Denise Hamrick, said she put the tree in the category of "fair fish," the plastic-bagged goldfish that inevitably die within a few days.

Carrie, who was 5, took charge of the seedlings - sort of. She planted them in spare pots and (when she remembered) provided them with water through the hot summer. One died. Mr. Burton was an avid outdoorsman - one thing Carrie does remember about him is hunting - and he took his daughter out to a tract of land the family had recently purchased so they could plant the remaining two trees.

After Mr. Burton died, the family would visit the property - where they had planned to build a home - and check on the trees. Another one died, but the third sapling kept growing.

After Mrs. Hamrick remarried, the family built a home on the property on Lewis Family Road in Lincolnton. They designed the house so the pine tree would be in the back yard, visible from the kitchen.

Carrie's stepfather, Mil Hamrick, "tree-educated" all of the construction workers and flagged the tree so nothing would happen to it, Mrs. Hamrick said.

A picture from the time they moved into the house shows Carrie and the pine, both straight and slender, with the tree about a head taller than the girl. Today, it stands about 25 feet tall.

Two years ago, when Carrie won the title of Teen Miss Georgia Forestry in a pageant, she told judges she would use the story of the pine tree to promote forestry.

For the competition, she also crafted a children's book, Too Scared, that grew out of her childhood fear of the dark. In a high school pageant, she'd already told the story of her childhood "blankie," which she still has.

"It's a piece of rag now," she said with a laugh. "A friend's sister had one, and she thought that was great, because she didn't feel like a baby anymore when she heard I still had mine."

Carrie's good at letting people know that it's OK to have things like blankies and trees to make you feel better, her mom said. She wants to be a child psychologist, partially because of her own experiences when she was young: The entire family - Carrie, Mrs. Hamrick and Carrie's older brother, Thomas - went through counseling after Mr. Burton's death.

She wants to attend the University of Georgia in Athens after she graduates from Lincoln County High School - which means this year would be the last time she'd have her picture taken with her pine tree on the first day of school.

Her mom fantasizes Carrie will get married there, one day.

"I don't know about that," Carrie responded with a laugh. "There's no telling what will happen then."


Copyright©Georgia Forestry Pageant and Educational Association, Inc. 2003-2006  Materials are not to be copied without permission.

Copyright©2021 Georgia Forestry Pageant and Educational Association, Inc. Materials are not to be copied without permission.