A near 60-foot willow oak tree in the center of downtown Goldsboro was planted during the Vietnam War to honor the sacrifice of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

And while the nation was divided because of the war, Goldsboro residents rallied behind the troops and their families, said former Goldsboro Mayor Tommy Gibson.

Gibson and his son, Ben, are concerned that the Freedom Tree -- planted in 1973 in the Center Street median near Spruce Street -- will be cut down during the next phase of streetscape improvements in downtown.

The tree was planted when Gibson was mayor to honor a local hero, Capt. Patrick Cleary, an Air Force fighter pilot whose F-4 Phantom went down in Vietnam. Cleary was listed as missing in action.

"Goldsboro was supportive of the war, unlike the rest of the country," Gibson said. "It was an awful time in the history of this nation but Goldsboro was never like that. Goldsboro was supportive of the war and Seymour Johnson (Air Force Base)."

Cleary's remains were eventually found decades later, in 2002, and a rededication of the tree took place in 2011. At the base of the tree are two plaques, one marking the 1973 dedication and another noting that Cleary was no longer missing in action.

The tree is a living memorial not only to Cleary but also a symbol of the community's appreciation to members of the military.

Tommy Gibson started thinking about the city's plans to continue streetscape improvements into the 300 and 400 blocks of Center Street, after Goldsboro captured a $5 million federal transportation grant to fund most of the work.

Design plans for the work are expected to start this year.

"Two months ago, I heard about streetscape," Gibson said. "I got to thinking my tree is there. I got to thinking that the tree is close to that intersection and it could come down."

Gibson talked with Julie Metz, Goldsboro's downtown development director, and looked over the downtown master plan, a guiding document to downtown development.

No decisions have been made about the tree, but the city may hire an arborist to check the health and expected lifespan of the tree.

"We haven't made any formal decisions about it," Metz said. "We'll wait until we hire a landscape architect, an engineer, to start that process of the plans.

"There are ways that we can probably adjust the current roundabout design to accommodate a tree, if the public decides that it's worth it to do that."

Mayor Chuck Allen said city leaders have time to consider their options and receive feedback from the community.

"We don't know enough today," Allen said. "There's plenty of time for us to work on it. Certainly, we'll take all that into account as we work on those two blocks. At the end of the day, I think we'll do what the right thing is."

Ben Gibson recently started a social media campaign in an effort to rally support to save the tree.

"We're just trying to get ahead of this thing so the city is aware of the history of this thing, so the will of the people will be observed," he said.

"You don't have to cut it down. If you want a roundabout, you can have a tree in the middle of it."

Gibson, with Graphixx Screen Printing on James Street, also created T-shirts that include the tree, an Air Force fighter jet and the words "Goldsboro, North Carolina, Home of the Freedom Tree."

"That was a means to get the word out," he said of the shirts, which he's selling at cost.

This week, Gibson put out a Freedom Tree challenge asking area residents to tie a ribbon around the tree to show their support for its preservation. By Tuesday afternoon, more than a dozen ribbons were wrapped around the tree.

"I suggested people leave ribbons on that tree so it can't be ignored," he said. "Ninety percent of people in Goldsboro don't know that tree is there.

"All we want to hear is they're not going to cut it down."

The Gibsons, as well as local historian Kirk Keller, want to preserve the Center Street area, also the site of Robinson Park. The park was established shortly after 1926 when the railroad tracks were removed from Center Street, according to the book "History of Wayne County."

The area along Center Street, from Chestnut and Elm streets, was the site of many farewells between lovers as soldiers who left their sweethearts for foreign battlegrounds in World War II, according to the book.

"That place, at one time or another, was a gathering place," Keller said. "It was a gathering place for servicemen in both World War I and World War II."

The park was dedicated to Joseph Robinson, who lived from 1858 to 1931 and served as editor of the Goldsboro Daily Argus for 44 years. Robinson "inspired his neighbors to create a better community," which is noted on the park sign, in front of the Freedom Tree.

Keller would like to see the future streetscape design include the preservation of the tree and the park, with a focus on its connection to members of the military.

"There's so many things that could be done there," Keller said. "I feel like it should be left to the public again. We would like, at least, to be part of the decision for the last part of Center Street.

"The art sculptures that we have are fine but why not take the last part of Center Street and make that a dedication to the military and the veterans who have served this area?"