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Behind the scenery

Photo by Alejandro Contreras

It’s 8 a.m. and the coffee hasn’t kicked in yet, but your walk to class isn’t terrible in the slightest. The sun is out, an oddity in the crisp, fall air and the campus looks picture perfect. You notice the flowers are different today—small, pretty, yellow and purple pansies. When did they change those? And the bushes are different, too. Is that one shaped like a duck? And there’s a cross. And an “O.” Are the Prayer Gardens blowing kisses and hugs to me? What a great day.

ORU is often known for its giant, brass Praying Hands and the intricacies of the Prayer Gardens surrounding that out-of-this-world Prayer Tower, each surrounded by well-kept foliage. But keeping the grounds of ORU pretty for students, faculty and visitors alike is not done in a day. It’s done every day.

Merle Dry, the Grounds Manager at ORU, manages 11 employees who maintain the campus. They work under the umbrella of the Maintenance Department of Sodexo, which has provided food, maintenance, grounds and custodial services for the university since 2009. Over time, Dry and the guys have found a community here on campus.

“We don’t see ourselves as Sodexo employees and the university doesn’t see us that way. They just see us as one big family,” said Dry.

Though their days are long and full of hard work, the groundskeepers truly enjoy their work and are always ready to wave “hello” to students and other passersby.

Photo by Alejandro Contreras

“I like working around the people out here and helping, being involved,” said Dry. “When people come to the campus, I want the campus to have an impact, to reach out and grab somebody and say, ‘Hey, you need to be here as a student.’ I want them to be able to say the campus looks good, and if it looks good, they’ll feel comfortable being in a place that looks good. We try to maintain it the best we can at all times.”

Many of the guys working on the grounds have been working here for years, and with such a small number of guys, they’ve developed a tight community and good camaraderie.

“Our guys are dedicated. To them, it’s more than just a job; they really care about this place. They go way beyond what you would normally see, because most of the time on a place like this, you’d be looking at around 16 full-time people, but we’re doing it with 11. And it’s because these guys are dedicated and because of the system,” said Dry.

Dry’s system falls in line with the yearly seasons. A few weeks ago, the fall flowers were planted, yellow and purple pansies, chosen to match the school colors of gold and blue in a flower that will stay alive through the harsh, winter winds. They are now in the planning process for spring and will begin planting the spring flowers in January, as the weather warms up. The spring flowers will stay throughout the summer. Though Dry and the guys keep the campus fresh on the day to day, they’re always thinking six months ahead.

In addition to keeping the campus bright and lively year round, the groundskeepers have found a creative outlet within topiary, which is the process of shaping perennial plants into shapes. 

Photo by Alejandro Contreras

“We shape them in all kinds of ways, like birds,” said Lionel Parra, one of the groundskeepers. “We say, ‘Let’s try to make this one this way,’ and we do it. It’s a little bit more work, but we like it.”

In these living sculptures, the groundskeepers find ways to have fun at work.

“When we get plants in, sometimes if their oddly shaped, we won’t leave them oddly shaped, and these guys will get creative and make something out of them,” explained Dry.

To keep camaraderie up, Dry finds different ways of encouraging his team; sometimes, he’ll invite them to his house for a cookout or take them all out to lunch spontaneously. If someone emails him with a kudos about how great the campus looks, Dry will print out the email and place it in the office for all the guys to see.

“Sometimes, I get more credit than I deserve, when these guys are the ones out there doing it,” said Dry.

“We really care,” said Parra. “We always appreciate it when someone stops and tells us, ‘Hey, you guys are doing a really good job. You make it look really good out here.’ We always say thank you, and we feel better because we did the job.”