On the ground — A day in the life of the Campus Services crew

Emily Barske, the Daily’s editor-in-chief, talks to Shane Baumler, a tree trimmer for Campus Services on the morning of Nov. 2. 

Emily Barske

Shane Baumler’s official title is tree trimmer. But on Nov. 2, his job from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. was to show me and a photographer the varying jobs Iowa State’s grounds crew does.

Disclaimer, it’s a lot of jobs. Much more than blowing leaves, shoveling snow and mowing the lawn — though those are key functions of Campus Services.

As I walked from my apartment west of campus to the General Services Building where the Campus Services shop is, I saw a total of three people. All of them looked like they were heading to work and were bundled up, as was I, for the just above freezing morning.

Based on the time (between 5:30 a.m. and 5:45 a.m.), they probably weren’t out and about for fun. Granted, they probably thought the same thing when they saw me.

Walking along, I remembered how much easier it was to get up this early for swim practice in high school than it seemed at the moment. Then, I recalled jumping into the ice cold pool as the clock hit 6 a.m. and I quickly swept that thought away.

I arrived to the General Services Building the same time as the Daily photographer (and actually also our sports editor) Brian Mozey. We tried two different doors that were locked before we made our way to the north side of the building where people seemed to be arriving.

I asked one of the men walking in if we were in the right place to find Barbara Steiner, supervisor of plant services for Facilities Planning and Management, who we were supposed to meet with first.

“You’re close,” the man laughed and walked us through the grounds crew’s shop to meet Steiner. She had us wait outside her office until everyone had their duties for the day. Then, Baumler would take us around.

The crew trickled in, most wearing high-visibility reflective coats, steel-toed boots and jeans. Some swiped their ID cards on the time clock — I learned later that some had already been there for two or more hours. And most had facial expressions as bright as their coats, greeting us two strangers with the same “good morning” that they greeted their co-workers.

“Are we going to have them do a big belly?” one man asked as they were preparing the tasks we’d do.

Honest to goodness, I couldn’t imagine anything but Santa Claus, though I assumed that had nothing to do with what they were talking about.

Baumler returned to the hall, paper instructions and keys in hand.

“What’s a big belly?” I asked him.

“Oh, that’s the trash compactor,” he grinned. Bigbelly, it turns out, is the name of the solar powered trash compactors found around campus. Nothing to do with Christmas.

That ended up being our first task of the day.

The ‘wow wall’

The trash bag inside the Bigbelly was smaller than I expected. I guess that’s the purpose of a trash compactor, though.

I asked Baumler if people were pretty good about putting trash in the trash and recyclables in recycling. And the short answer was sometimes.

We stood outside the Memorial Union waiting for the staff members who Baumler said would be there soon working on the area surrounding the building.

The Campanile chimed at 6:30 a.m., still lit up by the clock tower and the lights on the stone wall directly across from the MU. The sun was nowhere in sight, though the sky was turning from a dark black to charcoal gray.

Most of the 58 members working for Campus Services, which is a division of Facilities Planning and Management, come in at 6 a.m. to get their tasks and then deploy to their locations to do them. Some come in a few hours before that and others a few hours after depending on their main duties.

In the winter, it’s a whole different story.

Members sometimes come in at midnight or even spend the night to aid in snow removal and making sidewalks safe for those on campus. It’s a badge of honor to be an equipment operator on those days, as shoveling by hand in the bitter Iowa cold and piercing wind can be a bit more physically demanding.

Getting to operate equipment during snow storms is a matter of seniority and is a token to those who work with Campus Services for a longer period of time. The shop’s technician has to be on call during these storms, if he isn’t already plowing snow, to be available to fix equipment if it goes down.

Brandon Kadner is an equipment operator. His truck pulled up behind us just a few minutes after we’d emptied the trash. He was there to fix the trash can’s door, which was a little loose.

I asked him the type of equipment that he uses for his job.

“Pretty much everything,” Kadner said going on to explain his job could range from maintaining the farm roads on the outskirts of campus, putting in concrete for broken sidewalks, fence around campus, operating dump trucks, driving the snow plows, water main breaks and other duties as assigned.

His favorite task, which he said would be a very unpopular opinion amongst his co-workers, is plowing the snow. Not because of the time they do it, but because it’s serene.

“It’s a different universe here in the middle of the night when it’s snowing and it’s calm out,” Kadner said.

The atmosphere is different.

“It’s cool that 37,000 people walk around during the day and then to see the place just a few hours later and there’s nobody,” Baumler said.

As I finished talking with Kadner, Andy Dougan and Mary Schrunk rounded the corner of the plant beds separating the sidewalk from the area surrounding the Fountain of the Four Seasons. The two were blowing the leaves from the bed and chopping them up.

Dougan and Schrunk work on the flower displays in high profile areas on campus. Right now, they’re preparing the beds for winter. Some of the plants go into a greenhouse located by the General Services Building to keep them growing during the cold months of the year.

During the warmest months, the two are still outside. Schrunk said one of the funniest questions she gets is whether they’ll be working outside today. Because no matter the temperature, they will be. After all, you can’t tend to outdoor plants when you’re inside.

Essentially, their job is to ensure the flowers in the beds not only stay alive, but look great.

The tan stone wall, with Iowa State University carved into it, is surrounded with flowers during the warm months, adding an umph to the photos prospective Cyclones, student organizations and campus visitors take in front of it. The grounds crew members simply call it the ‘wow wall.’

“You can’t have a wall named the ‘wow wall’ and not have it look good,” Schrunk said.

Not just another branch

After finishing up learning about these jobs, we headed over to the site where Baumler would have been if he wasn’t giving us a tour. On the very east side of campus, past the intramural fields on the east side of Maple, Willow and Larch Halls, the arborists were cutting down a tree almost as wide as I am tall.

The tree crew — Kevin Doyle, Brad Spainhower, Matt Rochford and Baumler — were tasked with cutting down the 60-inch-diameter tree. A task they believed would take them two to three days.

Usually their job involves tending to branches, roots or looking at diseased trees. If a tree gets to the point where it’s dangerous or on grounds where construction will be happening, the crew helps to take the trees down.

Another set of members of the Campus Services crew is responsible for planting. This includes the grass and other plants. Sometimes areas have to be blocked off to keep people from walking on it. Other times, the crew sees that a patch of grass is so walked on — they call it a cattle path — that they put in a sidewalk there. 

The tree crew has a new app they are using to fill in when a tree is planted, being fixed or taken down; more trees are put up than taken down. 

Working with trees is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. When they have a tree in a high traffic place, the crew said they often get dirty looks for having a zone blocked off that’s in people’s normal path. Sometimes people disregard blocked off areas entirely. 

Tree removal doesn’t come without controversy. Students petitioned against the removal of some trees in 2015. The crew recalled times where people walked up to them and called them tree murderers or asked what they were cutting down today.

“We go out of our way to save trees,” Spainhower said.

With more than 35,000 trees and shrubs on campus, according to ISU Campus Landscape Maps, the crew often relies on members of the community to identify when there’s a problem with a tree. 

Odds and ends 

Many of the team members have a specialized job. Nobody really sits at a desk. The crew is “a bunch of blue collar people that can and like to do a lot of things,” Baumler said.

Wayne Stevens is a combination of a mechanic and a technician. He fixes things from leaf blowers to snowplows and anything in between.

“I’ll have a job as long as they keep breaking things,” Stevens said with a laugh as he told me stories about all the things he’s fixed.

He doesn’t ask how it was broke. He just fixes it. 

Curt Johnson is the pest control operator — meaning if there are pests to be taken care of, he’s the guy. Pest control can range from setting a beaver trap, to getting a raccoon off the window ledge of Beardshear at 10 a.m., to controlling the mass amount of crows roosting on campus and anything in between.

If animals are diseased, Johnson takes them to the College of Veterinary Medicine to be euthanized. If they are still healthy, he’ll often drive them more than 20 miles from campus and release them back into the wild. 

John Moore’s official title is parking maintenance worker, but he was introduced to me as the sign and paint guy. His “office,” so to speak, is full of paint and signs (like the one’s you see out during Orientation time or parking signs). He repaints campus parking lots and roads — working closely with the Department of Public Safety to do so.

On the day I talked to him, Moore had come into work at about 3:30 a.m. He had to paint lines and always tries to do so without inconveniencing CyRide, pedestrians and others coming through campus while also working around the weather.

And with the types of jobs they do, the team members see parts of campus in ways others don’t.

Beyond seeing campus without people, they also see the items people leave behind on campus: Like underwear or, if they were lucky, loose change. Each day brings a new surprise.

Stay beautiful

All of these jobs play a larger role than just upkeep and safety — “enriching, supporting and preserving our campus” is the mission of Facilities, Planning and Management.

“Our goal is to create and maintain the beauty of campus,” Baumler said.

Being ranked as one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, might be considered a testament to achieving that goal.