SJR Column: Campus Grounds, June 2014
I often ask students what the deciding factors were in their choice of the University of Illinois’s Springfield campus as the place where they would pursue their college degree. Though academic reputation, small class size and reasonable cost are often mentioned, students also tell me that they fell in love with the campus itself when they made their first visit. I guess that’s proof that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. In fact, research shows that a beautiful and functional campus is often a deciding factor in a prospective student’s college choice.
The UIS campus consists of 750 acres and it is, indeed, beautiful. About half of the property is still Class A prime agricultural land – deep (and valuable) Ipava soil that rotates, like most active farmland in Central Illinois, between crops of corn and soybeans. A talented and dedicated crew of 12 landscape professionals and grounds workers maintains the other 350 or so acres of the campus. That includes 6.5 miles of streets and roads (13 of which are named after Illinois authors), 7 miles of sidewalks, over 400 different types of trees and shrubs, about 2,000 perennial and annual plants, a pond, and acres of lawn and sports fields. It’s no wonder that the campus grounds are a popular destination, not just for students and youth soccer players, but also for local walkers, runners and bikers who can be seen daily making their way around the ring road rimmed with those lovely October Glory red maple trees.
I recently asked Joan Buckles, the talented horticulturalist who leads the UIS landscape team, how they manage to do it all -season after season. Joan was quick to point out that training, experience and dedication make all the difference. The 12 UIS employees who maintain the campus grounds collectively represent over 150 years of public landscaping experience and include four individuals who’ve earned horticulture degrees!
Each season brings its unique challenges and, of course, this past winter that was especially so. Brian Beckerman, who handles much of the snow removal on campus, said that plowing this year “seemed like it was never-ending.” In fact, Brian stayed overnight on campus several times to ensure that the roads would be cleared for students and staff for early morning classes.
According to Buckles, Mother Nature most definitely keeps things both interesting and unpredictable. In the past few years, the crew has dealt with multiple droughts, at least one harsh winter, hot and humid summers, flooding, and severe straight-line wind storms, one of which destroyed the campus greenhouse. Add to varying weather conditions, regular encounters with resident skunks, deer, groundhogs, possum, geese, raccoons, ducks, foxes and coyotes and it’s probably safe to say that no day on the grounds crew is likely to be the same as the day before.
Joan and her team are especially proud of the steady improvements they’ve made to the campus grounds in recent years, particularly the diversity of plant material that has been added to enhance the attractiveness of the landscape no matter what the season. Though a few trees like the mammoth cottonwood near Spencer House and the large ash trees at Strawbridge-Shepherd House go back to homestead days, a unique Persian Ironwood, with its beautiful ornamental bark and stem structure, is a more recent addition as are numerous dwarf and skinny evergreens. Perhaps our most unusual botanical specimen is a large (and seldom-seen) bald cyprus tree on the edge of campus property just off the YMCA soccer fields. Like the cyprus trees more commonly found in the swamps of southern Illinois, ours has developed knees and tangles of roots above ground – a sure sign that it has plenty of water underneath.
It’s actually a regular occurrence for faculty or staff members, students and campus visitors to stop a member of the UIS grounds crew just to express their appreciation for the beauty of the campus and the great work they do. For Joan Buckles, that work will come to an end when she retires later this month. We’re going to celebrate her contributions by planting a tree in her honor. She is leaving the campus in the very capable hands of Brian and the rest of the team and I’m confident that many more students will “fall in love with the campus itself” in years to come.