How Green Is Our Allée

By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66


Photo: Grounds crew
The crew (left to right): Kevin Cherry, Kevin Sackett, Chris Coleman, Prentice Thomas, Jesse Garner, Raymond Boles, Mitch Mitchell, John Weaks on tractor, David Quesenberry, Brian Foshee, Tracy Adkisson ’95

Several college guidebooks, happily, describe Rhodes as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. Anyone who’s ever set foot on these hallowed 100 acres would sing a loud “amen” to that. To be sure, the beautifully-designed and well-placed collegiate Gothic buildings in this residential enclave initially catch the eye of the beholder, but what sets them off so splendidly is their setting. The grounds of Rhodes are an inspiration unto themselves.

It all started when president Charles E. Diehl moved the college from Clarksville, TN, to Memphis in 1925. The new campus, he said, “was to be enduring, for we were building for generations to come.” It was also to be beautiful because “a college of liberal culture” dare not overlook the importance of the aesthetic side of human nature.

At Diehl’s right hand was John A. Rollow ’26, who as a student helped with the Clarksville-Memphis move. Along with books and lab equipment, Rollow brought with him oak seedlings from the Clarksville campus that he planted in parallel rows from North Parkway to Palmer Hall. Rollow served as college engineer from the time he graduated until his retirement in 1968. In 1976, the oak allée he’d planted some 50 years earlier was named the Rollow Avenue of Oaks.

Diehl’s convictions and Rollow’s aesthetically-driven know-how hold true to this day: Those founding principles are enshrined in the Rhodes Vision, which states in part that the college aspires “To provide a residential place of learning that inspires integrity and high achievement through its beauty, its emphasis on values, its Presbyterian heritage and its heritage as a leader in the liberal arts and sciences.”

Caring for the green

The results indeed have had a profound effect on students. Says Tammy Rayford Harris ’08, an English major from Memphis, “To me, Rhodes has always seemed like an art project. It’s beautiful in the first place, and it seems that every day something is being done to enhance it.”

“I’d add that it’s a work in progress,” says Allen Boone ’71, vice president for finance and business affairs whose domain includes Rhodes’ Physical Plant operations. “I thought the campus looked beautiful when I was a student. Then, you noticed the architecture. Now, you notice the architecture and the grounds—they complement each other.

“We’ve always been a very well-planned institution, as evidenced by the five master plans we’ve had since 1925. If you study those plans, you’ll see there’s been a natural evolution over time. We’ve built on the successes of each one and where we found things that didn’t work as well as we’d expected we’d come back and address them as we went. Part of that evolution has been based on changing conditions over time: For example, the student body has grown larger and consequently there are many more vehicles on campus than were ever anticipated 82 years ago. We may have made modifications, but we’ve never abandoned the original vision of an English Gothic village.”

The current master plan, which encompasses the years 2000-2010, was created by a committee of faculty, staff, students and trustees along with the Norfolk, VA-based architects Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. (HEWV), the firm that designed the Paul Barret Jr. Library, East Village and the Stewart Residence Hall renovation.

Designing Barret was one thing; locating it, another. After thorough study, HEWV proposed making the new library the center of campus. It meant transforming land formerly dominated by parking and service areas into a brand-new space.

“This was a great opportunity to further embrace the collegiate Gothic heritage of the campus not only with the architecture, but with the landscape and open spaces as well,” says Jane Wright, president of HEWV and lead architect for the Barret Library. “The new landscape included a traditional collegiate Gothic quad, similar to those found in the Oxbridge colleges that links the site both functionally and aesthetically to the physical fabric and pedestrian patterns of the campus.”

Rhodes is committed to following and maintaining every inch of both the new and established landscape.

“For example, the college has made a strong commitment to the replacement of trees throughout the campus. We’re also making improvements to Fisher Garden, replacing a number of old oaks in the outer ring of the garden,” Boone says. “Whenever we lose a tree—to disease, lightning, ice, wind, old age—we plant at least three good-sized new ones. I’d say we’ve planted at least 600 indigenous trees in the last 20 years.”

Helping keep the grounds green is a new irrigation system that covers 80 percent of the campus, from the athletic fields to Fisher Garden. Special care is taken to water conservatively—it’s done every two to three days in summer and only overnight or in early morning to keep evaporation to a minimum. Physical Plant has it down to a science—workers know exactly how much water is needed for every section of campus and how many gallons per minute are distributed.

Boone says that Rhodes has made a huge investment in equipment, training and best practices.

“There was a time when we had very little equipment,” he recalls. “When I came to work at Rhodes 20 years ago we had a 40-year-old tractor that had to be jump-started every day and an old truck that required pushing, then popping the clutch to start it. We had no golf carts, no riding mowers, no leaf collection equipment. Employees had to drive their own vehicles around campus to transport things. There was no radio system—with that alone, there’s no telling how much money we’ve saved in our ability to communicate. We’re so much more efficient today. Yet, we have about the same number of grounds personnel that we had 20 years ago, and they are among our greatest assets. We’re all reminded of Dr. Diehl’s maxim—‘The good is ever the enemy of the best,’ and like everyone on our staff, our groundskeepers are never satisfied with the status quo.”

The constant gardeners

Rhodes has entrusted the ultimate care of its grounds to only four people since 1925. Brian Foshee, current director of Physical Plant and a former project manager for the city of Memphis, has held his position at Rhodes for 20 years. Tracy Adkisson ’95 serves as associate director of Physical Plant. A crew of nine groundskeepers keeps the campus in its immaculate state.

This isn’t your typical crew. Superintendent of grounds Kevin Sackett came to Rhodes five years ago from the Tournament Players Club at Southwind, where for many years the Stanford St. Jude golf tournament was played. Chris Coleman, who maintains Rhodes’ athletic and practice fields (approximately one-third of the campus), also came from a golf course background, and on game days, works with the grounds crew at AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. David Quesenberry worked as a horticulturist at Memphis’ historic Elmwood Cemetery and Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Prentice Thomas and Kevin Cherry were with lawn service companies before coming to Rhodes; John Weaks, formerly with Memphis Light, Gas & Water, also brought practical experience—he lives on five acres with a pond; and Mitch Mitchell is in a “hands-on learning mode.”

The masters are Jesse Garner, assistant superintendent of grounds, who arrived at Rhodes in 1989, and Raymond Boles, who came in 1966 when Peyton Rhodes (for whom the college is named) was president and John Rollow was college engineer. Garner and Boles came from farming backgrounds. Both credit past longtime groundskeepers Henry Pratcher and James Vann for taking them under their wings and teaching them the Rhodes way of doing things. Sometimes working at Rhodes can be a family thing: Groundskeeper Sampson Anderson served from 1984-2001. His daughter, Sharon Cole, currently works in Housekeeping.

It can also be a Rhodes family thing. Through the years Jesse Garner has come to know students and their parents, faculty and staff.

“At move-in, parents sometimes ask me to watch after their kids,” says Garner. “In one respect, I have the chance to watch them grow up. Even after they graduate and come back to campus, they’ll see me, and some send me Christmas cards.”

All year long the groundskeepers mow, edge, sweep, fertilize, blow leaves, shovel snow, pick up branches after a storm. Everyone has specific duties, yet they all pitch in to get the job done.

Superintendent of grounds Kevin Sackett says, “We keep the campus in a constant state of readiness. In grounds maintenance, everything is about time. The faster you can mow and maintain an area, the more time you have to trim, prune and get everything else done.”

With almost military precision, Rhodes groundskeepers work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the academic year and from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in summer. They’ve divided the campus into five sections and on a rotating basis, work one section a day, Monday through Friday. Brian Foshee does a drive-around first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening in his pickup.

Sackett and Garner call themselves “working supervisors.”

“We don’t sit around drinking coffee and talking on the phone,” says Garner. “We have to be out there, know what’s going on and where everybody is and what they’re doing at all times.”

Dr. Diehl’s and John Rollow’s vision, now an indelible part of the Rhodes Vision, and the hard work and dedication of groundskeepers past and present have made Rhodes what many call the most beautiful 100 acres in the country.

Jesse Garner says that when people discover that he works at Rhodes, “They say, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful place! You must be proud of yourself.’

“We all are,” says Garner. “It’s our job to do it well.”

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