Ed Kozekowski stands back and examines the dogwood tree in front of Hitchcock. His miniature dozer is full of tools—pruning shears, pole pruners and loppers—and he pauses for a few moments, checking the branches for dead limbs and overgrowth.
“You want to make sure everything’s symmetrical, as much as it can be with shadows and branches,” Kozekowski says, grabbing a fallen limb and stacking it in his cart.
As the spring season gets underway, a small army of unheralded experts—those who have a deep knowledge of the best way to shape a tree, cultivate the greenest sod or charm bouquets of flowers from the ground—have fanned out across campus to quietly do what they do best: Make Amherst beautiful.
To do so, they must accomplish tasks of Herculean proportions—starting with spring clean-up. This is the time when the 15-person landscape and grounds crew cuts 120 acres of grass, often on hillsides so steep that a remote-controlled slope mower is required. They clean leaves out of every flower bed, edge them and prune them. They truck in 330 yards of mulch and distribute 220 yards of it by wheelbarrow. During move-out, they handle 15 yards of waste a day, some of which—lamps, shelves, chairs—is stored and offered to incoming students the following fall.
This epic amount of work, which culminates each year in Commencement and Reunion, were made even more difficult this spring thanks in no small part to a series of late snowstorms. When what should have been rain turned into snow and hail, Kenny Lauzier, in his first year as the supervisor of landscape and grounds, found himself making frantic 3:30 a.m. phone calls. His crew rallied at their Dickinson Street building, hooked disconnected plows and sanders back on their trucks and headed out for a 36-hour shift of snow removal.
Such weather events put the crew some six weeks behind their normal schedule, Lauzier said.
“Winter lingered for so long, it reduced the timeframe to get this monster of a job done,” he said, adding, wryly, “I think we’re going to finish what is visibly important.”
It’s the Friday before Commencement week—the “calm between storms” as Lauzier puts it—and the grounds supervisor is remarkably cheerful. He’s ordered two party-sized pizzas from Brunos for his staff for lunch as a reward for the work accomplished and the massive tasks still ahead.
Lauzier has been working with contractors to prune trees around campus. Such work is always scheduled around multiple events—this year pruning was halted during CareFest and Mammoth Day, for example—and involves particular care. A tree that has been identified as dead or dying isn’t simply removed, but first flagged by contractors and then examined by at least two additional consulting arborists.
“We do not take things down lightly,” Lauzier said, noting that in one case an iconic tulip tree was not only examined by multiple arborists but X-rayed before a determination about its removal was made.
During Commencement and Reunion weekends, the grounds crew monitor 15 different tents for trash (and will spend up to 12 hours emptying them). They also truck in and set up an army of chairs—between 3,000 and 5,000 in the gym alone.
Some 150 staff members and student workers deploy to break down and load trucks with chairs and equipment in the hours following Commencement exercises.
It’s a few days before the big event and Francis Gachau ‘20 is taking a break among a sea of white and gray chairs that he and the other 13 student workers had been setting up on the Main Quad all morning. In front of them, the Commencement stage is coming together. Staff hurry back and forth with clipboards and tape measures. Gachau said he applied to be a worker this year to make a bit of money and to stick around campus so he could see friends graduate.
Gachau—who repeatedly describes the work as fun and notes that the grounds staff are very supportive of students—says he was surprised by how much precision went into the Commencement setup.
“Seeing the result is phenomenal. The way it’s set up is beautiful,” he says. “Once you work here, you see how every seat is perfect. There’s a lot of work that goes into this.”