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Mike Thomas, a groundsman of OU for 15 years, blows leaves on the College Green Tuesday morning. The landscapers start cleaning up at 5:15 a.m. because efficiency is maximized when the grounds are cleared. (LIZ MOUGHON | PHOTO EDITOR)

Work piles up for grounds maintenance crew as fall peaks and leaves fall

Illuminated only by lampposts along the paths and the headlights of their mowers, the grounds maintenance crew stepped onto a misty College Green on a cool fall morning to ensure students have an enjoyable and manageable walk to class.

The maintenance crew is swinging into one of their busiest times of the season as the leaves around campus are flaunting their colors and beginning to pile up in large amounts.

While the spectrum of colors adds to the scenery as students make the walk across College Green, the safety of students and visitors is the crew’s top priority, Rudy Baumgartel, the upper campus grounds manager,  said.

“Our objective is not so much the looks, it’s still fall. So it’s neat to see, like right now you go in front of (College Gateway), it’s solid leaves,” Baumgartel said “That’s fall — people take pictures of that.”

Benjamin Hirt, a junior studying physics, said he is indifferent to the left-behind leaves he encounters on his way across campus.

“I think the leaves on the paths aren’t like overwhelming where you’re like swimming in leaves; you just kind of walk through and hit them. They make noise — it’s fall. It’s whatever,” Hirt said.

During the peak of leaf collection season, the grounds crew does an entire sweep of the leaves on campus twice a week — starting not-so bright, but very early at 5 a.m., when many students are still catching those last couple hours of precious sleep before their day begins.

Jesse Richmond, one of the groundskeepers on the upper campus crew, said waking up sleeping students isn’t usually a problem since they begin their work on College Green away from dorms. However, hidden open windows like those in Ellis Hall can sometimes be tricky to avoid.

At approximately 5:15 a.m. Richmond and his partner, Chad Thomas, strapped on hefty backpack-style leaf blowers and headed out to accompany the two ride-mowers already hard at work on College Green.

Baumgartel said the crew of four upper campus faculty members is able to clear off the entire Green by about 7:30 a.m. — ready for students’ first walk to class. After the crew has organized the leaves into manageable rows, a large truck comes around to suck up the piles and deliver them to different drop-off sites in Athens.

“Either way, nothing is wasted because the leaves go to the community garden. They also go to … the research gardens, and then the rest of it all goes to our compost facility,” Baumgartel said. “Everything that we have that comes off the Green, the whole campus — leaves, branches ... eventually comes back onto the Green.”

The fall clean-up season typically wraps up around the first of December, Baumgartel said. The heavy Oak leaves keep their color much longer than the other trees, keeping the crew waiting for those stubborn last leaves to fall.

Since a tree alone decides when to let the last of its straggling leaves fall, leaf collection can sometimes seem like a never-ending task.

“Sometimes, after you’ve done it all day long and then the next day it looks like you haven’t done anything,” Richmond said. “But it’s just an expected part of the season.”

Although keeping up with the leaves means being awake well before others and returning the next day to a scene that looks identical to the morning before, Richmond and Thomas said they much prefer the fall clean-up over the winter season. Sometimes, the clean-up of the sea of colors can even have an aesthetic quality.

“It’s really cool because you can see the (College) Green is all yellow and then it just sort of turns green.”

One problem that the staff often dealt with, Baumgartel said, is putting out small fires around campus caused by students throwing cigarette butts into the dry leaf piles. While the faculty almost never encounters that issue nowadays because of the campus-wide smoking ban, the leaf piles have posed a different problem for some students who are especially in the fall-spirit.

“We’ll have big piles of leaves sometimes and then kids will jump into them and they don’t realize they just jumped into dog poop,” Baumgartel said. “I would not suggest jumping in the leaf pile unless you know exactly what’s in there.”


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