Weather-dependent work hours, late night phone calls and early morning snow plowing are just a few of the nuisances that come with a job with Cornell’s Grounds Department. But despite these and other difficulties, members of the Central Campus landscape team “really enjoy what they are doing” and often push past natural obstacles that get in their way, said Dayton Allen ’86, the grounds crew’s leader.
“When we are interviewing people for a job here, we try to really make it clear that you have to really enjoy this — because if you don’t really enjoy what you are doing, this job sucks,” Allen said.
Allen leads his team in the “beautification” of Central Campus, according to Peter Salino, director of the Grounds Department. Salino said the crew’s main mission for landscaping is to “keep things just perfect.”
“I can tell you that we never get everything done. I always have a list of things that need to be done, and then I cross one off and add two,” Allen said.
But through all of the hard work, “learning experiences … or even just goofing around,” workers develop a sense of community working for the department, according to Nate Mosley, a grounds worker on Allen’s team.
“I have been here for more than 12 years; [there are] 45 people I work with 365 days a year, and so it’s a family,” Mosley said.
However, working in the Grounds Department can be difficult for employees’ families. According to Allen, some workers in the department are on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
“For most people on campus, their job is from eight to five, or whatever it is. [Grounds workers] are on call for whatever happens … With the drop of a hat you’ve got to come in, stay late or come in early,” he said. “People with kids, they have to make phone calls [like]: ‘Hey, I had to pick up my kid from school but I have to work for two extra hours.’”
Despite their efforts, staffers’ work for the Grounds Department goes unnoticed by people on campus, Allen said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people don’t see it. But if it is not done, then everyone notices,” he said.
Students are too “busy with their classes” to take notice of the small things around them that are made possible by the landscape team, Mosley added.
“People … probably think that a bunch of fairies come and do this stuff and are gone,” he said. “But if you start looking around, you’ll notice things like ‘when did that flowerbed get there?’”
Mosley said the disregard for University grounds by some members of the Cornell community is one of the worst aspects of his job.
“The worst is when people just don’t care. Point A to point B: That’s what is on their mind,” Mosley said. “During wintertime, people turn around and see us plow but they just turn around and keep walking in front without stepping out on the side. But with us, everybody here is a customer so at times we have to hold our tongues.”
One of the most challenging tasks the Grounds Department faces is winter maintenance, according to Allen, who said that cold-weather conditions can make workers “pretty grumpy.”
“A nice storm, we get two to three inches of snow overnight and then we can get in early morning and it’s taken care of,” he said. “But once it starts snowing during the day, we are kind of in trouble because once 8 or 9 a.m. rolls around, this place gets so busy [that] it takes twice as long to do anything.”
Summer can also pose intense work, particularly at sites such as the A.D. White Gardens, according to Kim Klein ’90, a gardener on Allen’s landscape team.
Weeds and critters are the team’s biggest obstacles in maintaining the gardens, according to Klein.
“The weeds are really difficult to keep up with — and the critters. We actually had a woodchuck hole in the middle of [a] big plant,” she said. “This summer, there was a small female with her fawn living right there in the woods.”
In addition to the manual labor associated with the job, working for the Grounds Department also involves a lot of diplomacy, according to Allen.
“There are about 25,000 to 30,000 people on this campus and every one of them is a customer,” Allen said. “Every employee has things that they like or want to be done; every student has [his or her] own idea of what’s important. So we do the best we can though there are only six of us.”
Mosley said the best thing about his job is the recognition that the team receives once a year at graduation.
“The big smiles we get during graduation when this place looks immaculate: that’s like our pat on the back,” he said. “We do it for you guys.”