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The Daily Evergreen

The keepers of the campus

From mow to snow, WSU’s landscape workers maintain 226 acres of university land

Todd+Stewart%2C+a+gardener+for+WSU+Landscape+Services%2C+weeds+in+a+flower+bed+in+the+backyard+of+the+President%E2%80%99s+Residence.+Cayenne%2C+President+Kirk+Schulz%E2%80%99s+corgi%2C+just+visible+behind+Stewart%2C+often+keeps+him+company+as+he+works.
Todd Stewart, a gardener for WSU Landscape Services, weeds in a flower bed in the backyard of the President’s Residence. Cayenne, President Kirk Schulz’s corgi, just visible behind Stewart, often keeps him company as he works.

Todd Stewart, a gardener for WSU Landscape Services, weeds in a flower bed in the backyard of the President’s Residence. Cayenne, President Kirk Schulz’s corgi, just visible behind Stewart, often keeps him company as he works.

CODY COTTIER | THE DAILY EVERGREEN

CODY COTTIER | THE DAILY EVERGREEN

Todd Stewart, a gardener for WSU Landscape Services, weeds in a flower bed in the backyard of the President’s Residence. Cayenne, President Kirk Schulz’s corgi, just visible behind Stewart, often keeps him company as he works.

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

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As one of the most senior WSU Landscape Services workers, Todd Stewart assigns himself to whatever tasks he sees fit to keep the university grounds in top condition.

He keeps a mental list of weeds that need pulling, trees that need limbing and assorted odd-jobs across campus, checking them off whenever he has a free moment.

“They kinda just let me do whatever I want because they always know I’m gonna be productive,” he says. “They will never catch me screwing off.”

He drives around campus in a white pick-up, loaded with rakes, brooms and cans for plant debris. It’s a warm day in mid-June, and he points out the landscaping details of notable university sites.

Passing by Rogers-Orton Playfield, one of the university’s largest patches of grass, he says it takes an hour and 15 minutes to mow. It’s the cricket field, he says, so they mow it to half an inch, two inches shorter than most places.

Though Stewart, 39, no longer works much in this area, he knows all of campus well. Farther down the road, Rogers Hall brings to mind his early landscaping days. He recalls students throwing condoms, tampons and other unsavory trash out their windows. Some, from several stories up, would even vomit to the ground below.

“This is kinda the ghetto area,” he says. “You first start working grounds, they give you the ghetto … It takes a tough person to pick up that kind of stuff all the time, but you get used to it.”

After the first five years or so, he says, employees leave that behind. Stewart has now worked here for 19, since he graduated from high school in Moscow, Idaho, and he has worked jobs across campus.

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Stewart puts plant debris into the back of his truck after cleaning up a flower bed.

Most recently, he took charge of the President’s Residence, a tiny piece of land compared to the larger responsibilities of most groundskeepers. This allows him to manicure the entire area, rather than only catching the highlights.

James Frazier, Landscaping Services lead and the only employee more senior than Stewart, noted Stewart’s attention to detail and desire to do everything well.

“He works good by himself,” Frazier said, “because he’s so meticulous. He’s got an eye for things.”

 

THE PRESIDENT’S GROUNDSKEEPER

Stewart steps through a tall metal gate into the backyard of 755 Campus Street — the home of WSU President Kirk Schulz and First Lady Noel Schulz. They don’t appear to be home, the perfect time to work.

“When they’re gone,” Stewart says, “I’ll go and ransack it. Especially when Cayenne’s gone.”

Cayenne, the Schulzes’ corgi, is one his biggest concerns. He must be careful not to spray harmful chemicals while she is around, or to leave a gate open.

“If Cayenne got out of the fence and got hit by a car,” he says, “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

The dog seems to be missing too, until she scampers down the white steps leading from the house to the yard. She approaches Stewart without hesitation.

“Hi Cayenne!” he says in the cutesy voice reserved for babies and small animals. “She comes and licks me in the face when I’m pulling weeds.”

When he’s not playing with Cayenne, he’s carefully maintaining the acre of land that is the president’s yard. He has planted 500 flowers and fixed the pond, which for much of the year is home to dozens of koi (during winter they keep the largest fish, Fred and Frank, in a bathtub in the Landscape Services warehouse).

Stewart’s greatest disappointment so far is that he has been unable to breathe life into the rose planted for former President Elson S. Floyd after his death.

“This is my saddest thing,” he says, pointing to the bare stem, but Noel says she thinks there is still hope for it.

The other gardeners are assigned to different sectors of campus ranging from 20 to 60 acres, 226 in all. But because the WSU president frequently hosts students, faculty and staff, and others from the university community, they decided during Floyd’s tenure that it needed greater care. They also hold donor events at the President’s Residence.

“When they’re all smoking cigars on the back porch,” Stewart says, “I want the yard to look nice so they give the university a bunch of money.”

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Cayenne, the Schulzes’ corgi, stands behind Stewart as he works at the President’s Residence.

Noel Schulz says Stewart has done a good job on the yard since he took over a few months ago, particularly with her favorite bed of flowers right behind the house.

Though they have spoken some about his landscaping projects for the yard, Noel says they mostly leave it to Stewart, who knows more about growing plants in the Pacific Northwest.

“We kind of feel in a way it’s his yard, and he gets to pick and choose,” she says. “And we’re two engineers, not big greenthumbs.”

The Schulzes have spent much of the summer traveling, leaving the house vacant often. But in August things start speeding up, and Stewart’s work becomes more urgent.

“You won’t find a pinecone on this property during the school year,” he says.

 

THE OTHER 225 ACRES

Stepping out the gate and locking it behind him, Stewart remarks that he’s had the key for years already. Long before he began maintaining the President’s Residence, he was a “mow guy” on the route that included that yard.

He worked on several routes, like the one that includes the Valley Playfields, which took three and a half hours to mow when they were grass — so long in a straight line you could fall asleep, he says. Altogether, three mowers must spend two 10-hour workdays to cut all the lawn on campus.

But there is much more to WSU landscape work.

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Stewart dumps a load of bark into a Landscape Services truck.

In addition to mowing, most is general upkeep, like weeding, trimming and spraying. When it snows, they sometimes work 12-hour days to keep the walkways and stairs clear.

Stewart says they promote people to excel in whatever they are interested in, which is how he became a jack of all trades.

“I’m really into all of it together, so they just throw it all at me,” he says. “But I don’t do anything I know my brain power can’t handle.”

For example, one of their big summer projects is a new irrigation installation at the Research and Technology Park. Stewart prefers gardening to this kind of technical and mechanical work, but he admires his co-workers who are more knowledgeable in these areas.

Stewart is familiar with all of campus, but he says some others, like Frazier and Josh Greggs, the irrigation lead for Landscape Services, have a more intimate knowledge of the inner workings of WSU than almost anyone. Greggs has even memorized the location of all the sprinklers.

“Josh and Jim [Frazier], they know so much about campus,” he says. “They know what’s in all the ground. Those guys are really on top of it.”

He says it’s important to have a diverse crew — “not just a whole bunch of Potlatch redneck-type dudes” — because all kinds of people do all kinds of work.

“If you just get a whole bunch of people that only like to chainsaw trees,” he says, “then pretty soon you’re not gonna have any trees on campus.”

 

METHODS OF A GARDENER

What Stewart likes are the simpler tasks. Sometimes, he is forced to do mechanical work in the winter, when it’s too cold to spend much time outside. But he says the good times, when the weather is fine and he can garden in the warm sun, outweigh the bad.

“There’s something very therapeutic about going out and pulling some weeds at 6 a.m.,” he says.

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Todd Stewart deadheads a patch of tulips behind Ferdinand’s. He always works barehanded.

As he drives along Stadium Way, he suddenly remembers a row of tulips behind Ferdinand’s that needs deadheading. Generally, he focuses first on Stadium Way and fans out from there to the areas behind buildings.

“You’re out and about so much and you see so many different things,” he says, “you bank it in your mind at priority level.”

Today, the priority is tulips. He pulls up, grabs a garbage can from the back of his truck, and starts yanking out the withered flowers.

Stewart is adapted to this work. He can bend over for extended periods of time, he says, and it no longer bothers him. He doesn’t wear gloves, and has a weed-pulling callus on his thumb to prove it. He says his hands are tough enough to painlessly pull thistles.

“I always work with my bare hands,” he says, “so I can feel what’s going on.”

“Plus,” he jokes, “it drives my wife crazy.”

In high school, Stewart and a friend ran a lawn-mowing business. His father worked with Frazier’s wife, and after he graduated, Frazier was looking for groundskeepers. He joined the team and proved he could come up with enough tasks to fill every day.

They are busiest around graduation and when school starts, when high-visibility areas must be in pristine condition. But Stewart says work is always close at hand, even if that means just picking up litter.

“If you can’t find anything to do on grounds crew,” he says, “you’re not looking hard enough.”

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