Tennessee Tech staff member memorializes tree that saved her life in the 2020 tornado

Lauren NealWhen Lauren Neal planted the pin oak at her home in Cookeville 14 years ago, she had no idea that it would save her life one day – or that she would get to memorialize it by working with a world-famous wood artist to preserve a piece of it.

Neal, who is the manager for the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Tennessee Tech University, was in her home with her boyfriend and one of her children when they were hit by the Cookeville tornado on March 2, 2020, that leveled homes in her neighborhood and took the lives of 19 people.

That night, she had just received the weather alert and had jumped up to wake her teenage daughter when the front of her house exploded. She watched her daughter be ripped right out of her bed by 175-mph winds while Neal was trapped by a door and flying debris. The whole house was lifted off its foundation before coming to a sudden stop while it was ripped apart by the EF-4 tornado.

Despite the destruction of their home, Neal and her household survived. Her daughter was found in their neighbor’s pool, miraculously with only minor injuries. It wasn’t until later, when Neal and her family were joined with community volunteers to help salvage her family’s belongings from her property, that they saw what had stopped her house from sliding even further off the foundation.Pin oak tree on Lauren Neal's property after March 2020 tornados

“Once we started tearing away pieces of the house and going through everything, we realized where the house was,” she said. “It was up against that tree.”

Though the wind and the weight of the house had broken the tree down to a large stump, that stump had been strong enough to keep Neal’s home from flying away any further, likely helping to save the lives of all those inside. In the days that followed, Neal started thinking that she wanted to do something with the wood of the broken tree.

She decided to try to contact Cookeville woodworker Brad Sells, a well-known artist and Tech alumnus, who has his work displayed all over the United States as well as overseas. It took about a year for them to get connected, but once they did, Sells was enthusiastic to help her, Neal said.

After some discussion, they decided that he would teach her how to craft a vessel out of the wood herself during a one-on-one workshop over five days that they split across several months. Though Neal had attended basic woodworking workshops at Tech’s Appalachian Center for Craft, she’ had never attempted the kind of techniques that Sells uses to create his signature large, wooden vessels.

“I could have paid him to make it for me and it would have probably turned out better. Well, not probably,” Neal corrected herself with a laugh. “It definitely would have been better made. But I love the fact that I was able to learn from him and do it myself.”

Sells taught her how to use a chainsaw to cut the wood she needed from her tree’s stump, and then use ever-increasingly fine methods of carving and sanding until she produced her own version of the large wooden bowls that Sells is known for making. It was exhausting work, Neal says, but one that she felt was also cathartic for working through the trauma she and her family went through on that horrific night in 2020.

“The work was something where you’re using your mind, but also you're not,” Neal said. “It helped me to really access that creative part of me. Brad just gave me pointers and let me do it. So, I was able to work through the process. Not just the wood – the emotions too.”

Neal ended up selling the property where her home once sat, but the wooden bowl now sits prominently on her dining room table in her new home. She says she plans to purchase professional tools to continue practicing the skills she learned with Sells. She has saved another, smaller piece of wood from her old tree that she also wants to turn into a piece of art.Wood bowl created by Lauren Neal

“That tree, I planted it when we first bought our house,” she said. “My son was born in that house that year. My dog’s doghouse was under that tree. It provided shade and provided fun all those years, and then it held my house during that tornado. It stopped it there. What if it hadn’t stopped it there? I don’t know. So, being able to have a piece of that tree is so important to me, and I’m so thankful to Brad for letting me work with him to make something like this out of it.”

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