Roughly 40 years ago, Johnny Simmons of Franklin planted a spruce evergreen tree in his front yard. His daughter, Sherry Willhelm, remembers that tree well throughout the years of growing up in her childhood home.
Moving to Spring Hill in 1998 with her husband, Willhelm was never more than a brief drive away from her parents, who continued to reside in her Franklin childhood home.
It would be in April of 2018, however, that Willhelm's mother — Suzanne Simmons — unexpectedly passed after battling a rare form of leukemia. Mr. Simmons would pass just nine months later due to complications from Alzheimer's.
"We say he basically passed of a broken heart," Willhelm said. "He was fine, I mean we were going out to lunch, but he was just miserable - he was lonely."
Horticulturalist Bill Tolbert, who has overseen the state's annual Christmas tree dedication for decades, approached Willhelm in 2018 about possibly having her family's spruce become the state's official Christmas tree.
Willhelm sat on the idea, but didn't pursue it. After the tragic passing of her parents, however, Tolbert by chance would again ask Willhelm if she might be interested in her family's tree becoming the state Christmas tree.
This time, Willhelm saw the request as an opportunity to honor everything her parents had done for her.
"The reason why it was just a blessing [is because] Tolbert from the governor's office had spotted this tree three years ago when mom was probably getting sick," Willhelm said.
"[I] never mentioned it - the year my dad passed, it was never mentioned [either], it was after their passing that all this came about. That's why it's just a blessing that this can be an honor of them."
Chance would have it too that on the day Tolbert inquired about Willhelm's family tree becoming the state Christmas tree, it was scheduled to be cut due to its branches encroaching on a set of powerlines. After some calls to the nearby electric company, those plans were hastily scrapped.
Fast forward to Monday night, Nov. 30, Gov. Bill Lee and First Lady Maria Lee stood at the steps of the State Capitol Building in Nashville, prepped and ready to begin the countdown for the tree's lighting.
"The Christmas tree down on the plaza that we're about to light up is from the Willhelm family," Lee said to a group of reporters, snow falling down.
"Sherry and her family are donating that tree to honor and in memory of her parents. It was going to be removed for powerlines, so now it's going to be enjoyed by all Tennesseans."
Speaking on the year as a whole, Lee shared a few words of hope amidst an ongoing pandemic that has tested the resilience of many a Tennessean.
"This has certainly been a challenging year for many of us, it's a year when we certainly need to find hope," Lee said.
"It's a year that has been a heartbreak for many, it's been disappointing for many, it has really been a year that's tried to break a lot of folks' spirits - except here we stand, continuing to press forward in part because of the resiliency of Tennesseans. Scripture reminds us that even in the midst of difficulty and trouble, if we keep our eyes focused on that which is good, we should dwell on those things."
At 1,800 pounds and 35 feet-tall, the official state Christmas tree will remain lit after dark throughout the remainder of the holiday season, and can be seen across from the Legislative Plaza on Dr. M.L.K. Jr. Boulevard in Nashville.