The 90-Acre Lawn

By Samuel Masinter '04

View a short photo essay of the grounds department.

Grounds Supervisor Bob Shea at the wheel of one of the tractors used for leaf gathering
Grounds Supervisor Bob Shea at the wheel of one of the tractors used for leaf gathering.

It's 5 a.m. The custodial staff will arrive in a little more than an hour, and the college opens for business at 8:30. The roads that snake through the college's 90 acres and 70 buildings are nearly empty, and there's a problem with the gutters on the president's house. And there are leaves. Lots of leaves.

For the next hour, Bob Shea, the college's grounds supervisor, will drive slowly through the still-sleeping campus, taking note of everything that needs attention from his crew. "The greatest thing about this job? It seems like we're never doing the same thing two days in a row. I can get the whole work day planned out and it never happens the way it's supposed to." Today, though, it's about leaves.

For about one and a half months, from the early trees through the stubbornly late oaks and the first snow, the grounds crew circles campus in a small fleet of biodiesel powered tractors with blowers and vacuums in tow. The crew gathers the leaves and takes them into the bird sanctuary, where they compost for about four years - their reds and yellows finally giving way to a rich, dark black mulch used for new plantings and trees in the spring.

It's New England's version of Sisyphus' punishment - by the time the campus' 90 acres of leaves are taken out to the mulch pile, it's time to start over again. "[People] think you let all the leaves drop and then you pick them up once - but they get so heavy and wet and thick that they smother the lawn," says Shea. And by the time fall is done with its tricks, there's another challenge.

"Sometimes, I'll get a phone call in the middle of the night," says Shea. "But I watch the radar - and I try to get to campus well before the snow storm." If all goes according to plan, the students will wake up to a campus blanketed in snow - except for on the roads and sidewalks. "If it snows, it's usually a two-day project," says Shea. "[We] get the equipment ready, clean the campus, and when we're done, post-treat everything and get all the spots we missed... There's always a student calling us about a new [patch of ice]."

There's not much ice - thanks, largely, to vodka. When a distillery in Europe noticed that the stream its remnants were dumped into never froze, a new product stumbled onto the market. Students call it soy sauce, though it's now mostly an extract from sugarcane. "It lowers the freezing point down to about zero [degrees Fahrenheit]. Salt only gets it down to 23 degrees."

In the course of a normal winter, Shea's team will truck about 200 loads of snow into a dump spot in the bird sanctuary. Come spring, they'll rake out what's left from the melt - mostly blacktop and sticks. "And a lot of student IDs," Shea adds. "And cell phones. And umbrellas...and a lot of beer cans."

In mid- to late May, by the time the snow has melted and the thousands of fallen leaves and truckloads of snow are replaced with 5,000 chairs for Commencement, Shea's back to making sure that the lawns  "looks like a million bucks." There's seeding, mowing, fertilizing and watering, all done on a schedule that's become second nature to Shea over his 33 years at the college. In between, Shea keeps an eye out for his biggest pet peeve: cars on the grass. “There’s nothing worse for a lawn.”

Save for a few days of move-in and Reunion, when Shea does his best not to personally tow every car on the quad, his message is well received. But that doesn't mean the lawns are entirely safe.

About 15 years ago, mere weeks before Commencement, Shea and his crew went home on a rainy Friday afternoon. The college's rugby team, displaced from their normal home on the athletic fields, decided to hold their practice on the main quad. When Shea returned on Monday, he says, "it looked like a cow pasture during a rain storm." After some heavy equipment use, a few hundred pounds of grass seed, a rented irrigation system and a few weeks of Shea's careful watch, Commencement was held on a perfect lawn.

Over the past decades, the grounds crew has embraced the green movement, which saw the college's heavy truck fleet converted to biodiesel and newer, more efficient equipment join the 70-vehicle fleet. Everything that can be recycled, is. Leaves are mulched for spring plantings, cardboard is packed up and sent to a local paper mill and scrap metal is sold to recyclers. Shea jokes that his is "probably the only department on campus that makes money."

And while the job is still physical, equipment has evolved to help take away some of the strain. There's even a robot. "It used to take three summer student workers about four days a week, every other week, to mow the bankings," Shea says. Then, a few years back, a salesman brought what looked like a remote controlled, militarized, oversized Roomba to campus. Shea was sold - "we can mow every banking on campus in two days now."

Things never change too much, though. "I think our jobs are safe. Somebody's always got to mow the lawn. Somebody's always got to shovel the snow. Somebody's always got to rake the leaves. You'll always have the grounds guys here." And somebody's going to have to fix the president's gutters.