Scotlight: Phil Olsen

Features Editor Alex Nathanson ’24 sits down with Phil Olsen, manager of The College of Wooster’s Grounds Department, to discuss the role of the department on cam- pus. Follow the Grounds Team on Instagram and Twitter @ COWgrounds.

Q. What’s the breakdown of work like?

A. We have a total of 10 people in the department. If the call comes out to be here at 3 or 4 a.m., everybody starts plowing for two hours. Then we will have our building folks, typically four or five people, branch off somewhere around 6 to 7 o’clock to start shoveling the buildings and getting parking lots ready for full traffic. Meanwhile, me and another guy finish up the sidewalks and we have three plow trucks going to plow out campus. Usually, there’s two of us that do sidewalks, and we do them with the Ventrac tractors and we can drop salt at the same time. Once that’s done, we grab shovels and help finish shoveling. Shoveling is the most tedious and strenuous part of it as far as labor. We have to shovel for all the service houses – even the ones that are not occupied because you never know when they’re gonna need them. And the custodians do help when they can for the entrances, but we’re responsible for all the outdoor steps and entrances to every building –  both academic and domestic.

Q. How long does that process take?

A. It depends on the storm. For an average two-to-four-inch storm, we can probably get campus done in about eight hours. That’s usually with us starting at like 3 or 4 a.m. to try and get the lots plowed off because they’re going to be occupied by staff or faculty by 8 a.m. We’ll go through roughly 80 to 100 tons of salt on the sidewalks and the parking lots per season, but there have been times where we have 12 to 13 inches of snow down and we’ll go through 25 tons of salt just for that storm. We’ve had storms where we have to get an outside contractor to come in with heavier and bigger equipment to clear the sidewalks because there’s just too much for our trucks. The last estimate we were given is that there’s close to 11 miles of sidewalk on campus – including Beall Avenue, Bever Street and Wayne Avenue – which we’re responsible for. Sidewalks are obviously what is most used for traveling around campus so we try to get those cleared off as early as possible.

Q. What else are you doing in the season when there is no snow to shovel?

A. We have to basically rebuild a lot of our equipment over the winter. We have 13 or 14 backpack blowers, about the same amount of weed whackers, and all of it gets serviced in the wintertime. We also have to service somewhere between 20 and 25 golf carts each winter: oil changes, any parts that need repair, any maintenance that needs to get done – we go over. We basically tear apart every piece of equipment that we have to service it and make sure it’s ready because the growing season – as we call it – is so demanding on equipment. For example, the mowers they use on the athletic fields and the golf course have five mowing heads on them, and we have to completely disassemble them and put them back together with brand new, sharp blades and bed knives. It’s a precaution but it’s also for performance – a sharp blade cuts grass better than a dull blade. It’s actually a lot to get done in a short amount of time because the growing season always comes so quick for us. And then, if it’s nice out, we go outside and work. This week it’s supposed to be 50 degrees, so you’ll see Grounds people out pruning shrubs or blowing weeds or just getting campus ready for mulch. We also grind our own mulch – we have about 1,500 yards of ground to cover with it.

Q. When does the growing season typically start?

A. I would say most of the time by the second week of March, maybe the first week of April depending on how the spring is. By then we’re pretty much in full swing – we’re mowing and edging the grass and getting the golf course ready. There have been times where we were mulching (setting mulch) by the end of February. We basically have to hit the ground running in order to have everything ready by graduation.

Q. Are you involved with the planting of the class tree? How do you determine what species it will be and where it is located?

A. We do it! To give you the short answer, we usually just pick a shade tree because those seem to be the ones that do the best and stay around the longest. Typically, it’s been an oak because originally this campus was founded on an oak flat, so we have a ton of verdant forests and old growth oaks that are here on campus. As far as the location, there’s not a huge rhyme or reason; it’s usually just where the tree will do best. We try to keep that class tree somewhere near the oak grove or by the academic buildings, but eventually that’s gonna get pretty crowded too.

Q. Any future plans for the campus?

A. The main thing is that we have to finish landscaping Lowry this coming season. The plan would be to incorporate a nice mix of shrubs and trees to replace what we lost from the construction project. We also have to landscape the tennis courts too, which is a pretty substantial landscape going in. We have benchmarks that we try to hit on a seasonal basis. Our main focus from the middle of March until the second week of May is making sure campus is ready for graduation. Once graduation hits: keep it nice and primped up for alumni weekend. Gary and two other guys are on the golf course because golf season is in swing, mowing three to four days a week. By that point, we’re kind of in our “summer maintenance mode,” keeping the athletic fields in good shape for all the camps and all the tournaments that are happening here. And then we’re getting ready for the start of school by making sure the campus looks nice for everyone by that point. We blew leaves for six to eight weeks straight this past year, starting in October usually. We have 2,800 trees on campus and a lot of them hang onto their leaves because they’re oaks. Our work is very seasonal; we have a full docket and the docket changes by the season.

Q. Any closing thoughts?

We’re always looking for student help! We have a really dedicated and talented department that takes what they do very seriously and I’m grateful to be a part of it. I’ve had a few students come up and give thanks for keeping the sidewalk safe and that means a lot when you’re out there busting your tail early in the morning.

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