One of the first questions of callers to the newspaper after any hurricane has been "Is the Friendship Oak OK?"
   The oak, thought to be at least 500 years old, is a symbol of friendship and durability. It stands majestically on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi-Gulf Coast in Long Beach, the former campus of Gulf Park College for Women.
   The leafy giant that has outlived at least 33 hurricanes is a weather monitor, much visited by tour groups and locals who marvel at limbs so long they skirt the ground.
   The college itself dates to the 1920s and catered to women who, in addition to the basics, learned to be "young ladies" by the standards of the day.
   Gulf Park was favored by students from South and Central America, and some locals, too, who had the luxury of taking the beach streetcar to the campus. One of the popular stories is that poet Vachel Lindsay taught the women classes in the tree platform.
   The legend of the oak is that anyone who walks up into the tree platform together will remain friends for life. Many a visitor has walked off with a leaf or an acorn of the tree as a memento.
   After Friendship Oak survived Hurricane Camille, state forestry employees, impressed with the tree's sturdiness, gathered acorns and sprouted baby Friendship Oaks. The saplings were offered to the community for replanting. Hundreds were given away and today would be about 35 years old.
   The oak survived Katrina but the fate of the USM campus, which sustained $15.5 million in damage, at that particular site is uncertain until the state College Board makes a decision. For now, USM-Gulf Coast classes are being held in Gulfport at the former site of a hospital.