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The Finishing Touch

On a sunny Monday morning in late October, Avon Seymore and Tom Jenswold drove out to the little nursery by University Lake to dig up a magnolia tree.

It was a tree both men were familiar with. Seven, eight, maybe nine years ago, Seymore and Jenswold had planted the magnolia at the nursery from a three-gallon pot.


If they had bought a magnolia tree of similar size from a nursery, they would have paid close to $500 for it even at a wholesale price, Jenswold said.

Later that morning, the two men and other members of the landscaping crew were busy replanting the tree, which towered over all their heads, in the courtyard of Alderman, McIver and Kenan residence halls.

This simple replanting may not seem like a big deal. But Tom Sudderth, a supervisor in Grounds Services, can tell you why it is.

The University is the only campus within the UNC system that uses its own grounds crew to perform landscape installations, including landscaping work around new and renovated buildings.

Sudderth said having a grounds crew capable of doing this work not only saves the University time and money, but leads to a better, long-lasting result.

Before landscape was moved in house, outside contractors won jobs by submitting low bids. Too often, their work reflected it, Sudderth said. Often, members of the grounds crew had to go in after a few years and replace the landscaping the contractor did because of poor site preparation and installation practices.

That is not a problem with the in-house landscaping crew and it’s because of the pride and professionalism of crew members such as Seymore, Sudderth said.

And it is because of these qualities that supervisors and coworkers recognize in Seymore that he received a 2004 C. Knox Massey Award.

“Avon is a quiet, somewhat shy gentleman,” who has risen through the ranks of the Grounds Department by working extremely hard, being very loyal to supervisors and leading his fellow grounds men by exhibiting a positive attitude and an aggressive work ethic,” Sudderth said.

Campus as canvas

Seymore would never put it this way, but to him and other members of the landscaping crew, the campus is like a canvas. Sure, the architects get to put their names on the buildings, but it is left to men like Seymore and Jenswold to make the finishing touches — always in bold strokes of green.

And it is the special care that they take in applying these strokes that give the campus extra sparkle and luster.

Patricia Langelier, associate dean for operations at the University’s School of Government, cites as an example the enclosed courtyard named in remembrance of Nanette Mengel, a beloved public administration professor who had inspired a generation of students.

In summer of 2003, a private contractor was hired to install the garden landscape within 90 days so it could be completed well in advance of a ceremony set for that November. The garden was to feature garden beds, bluestone-capped seat walls, a pool and waterfall.

But a day -and- a- half before the Nov. 6 ceremony, the courtyard was still not finished. And that was when Seymore and his crew were called, Langelier said.

“He and his crew flew into action, delivered and distributed tons of topsoil, planted seven trees, including a 12-foot holly, 50 shrubs and dozens of groundcover plants, mulched all the beds and cleaned up the paved areas so that the site was spotless for the dedication ceremony,” Langelier said.

That extraordinary effort, Langelier said, was the reason she and 18 others at the School of Government felt privileged to nominate Seymore for a Massey.

Langelier said it was a tribute to Seymore and his crew that they could work so well together to accomplish what people might consider impossible.

But for them, it was all in a day-and-a-half’s job.

‘What did I do?’

Seymore is 46 now and has been working at the University close to half his life. The thought of leaving the University to do anything else has never crossed his mind.

When you love what you do, you want to keep on doing it for as long as you can, he said.

Seymore grew up in Moncure, a small town in Chatham County, and then moved to Pittsboro after he got married. He has three boys, ages 23, 19 and 14.

Seymore said he learned everything he knows about landscaping from the people here, including his first supervisor, Walter Dunmore.

When he first started, most of the work fell into the category of regular maintenance such as pruning shrubs and clearing dead limbs from trees.

The landscaping crew, though, presents a greater challenge, an opportunity to be creative and use what you know.

While an architect draws up a landscaping plan, every now and then the crew will make a change when a tree is too close to the building, or the architect recommended a plant unsuited for the area.

“I love doing this type work, and so when you love it you will put a little bit more effort in it,” Seymore said. “Over the years, it’s nice to be able to stand back and see things and I can tell myself, `I helped do that.’ Just about every building I go to I can see something that I did.”

But it never occurred to him that so many people had so noticed his work that they would nominate him for a Massey.

Seymore had read about the Massey award before, but he never considered himself a worthy candidate to get one.

“You see the guys who win it and you say to yourself, `I’m glad for them’ but you never think it would ever happen to you. It was a real big shock.”

When Seymore was told Chancellor James Moeser wanted him to give him a call, his first though was, “`What did I do?'”

“When I went to the banquet, I found out it was a big thing, and I was just proud to be one of them to win it.”

His middle son, who is also named Avon, now attends N.C. Central University and works parttime at Carolina.

“He knew it before I did and he was so proud. What made me proud was my wife and children were there with me to accept this award.”

Jenswold, whom Seymore calls “T.J.,” said Seymore is called upon to do the tough and highly visible jobs because everyone who knows him knows he will do the best job possible.

After a snowstorm, he is always the first to jump on the snowplow.

After a hurricane, he is always the first to pick up a chainsaw to clear away debris.

And he has the ability to prune a shrub three feet high or a 25-foot crape myrtle with the same great eye for symmetry.

Sharing the glory

Still, all the praise that has been heaped his way makes Seymore a bit uncomfortable, not because he doesn’t believe he deserves it, but because he doesn’t believe he deserves it anymore that the friends he has worked with over the years.

“I was just lucky to win the Massey award. T.J. and other guys on the crew deserved it more than I did,” Seymore said. “It’s a whole lot bigger than me and I just can’t take all the glory.

“I’ve been fortunate with all the guys I work with. I was glad to be able to win this award but I couldn’t have done it without my crew.” Seymore said.

Seymore said the important thing for him is to go back to the job and keep doing it the same way he had before.

“If I let this go to my head or something like that then I would slow up and that would put more work on the rest of the crew. It’s basically back to normal. We just go out and do what we got to do, and I’m glad I still got the strength to come up here and do it.”

The only change, Seymore said, is every once in a while they call him “Money.”

But Kirk Pelland, director of Grounds Services, said Seymore has proven to be a “money” employee a long time ago, in the sense that he can be counted on to do whatever is asked of him.

Pelland, in his nominating letter for the Massey, described Seymore as “a quiet, but very talented 20-year employee” who did not always get the credit he deserved for the productive work he does behind the scenes.

“In the Grounds Department, employees often work outside of their normal landscaping duties on special assignments,” Pelland said. “Mr. Seymore is an extremely talented equipment operator and landscape maintenance worker who is always on the “A-team” when it comes to special assignments.”

Whether the job is snow removal or hurricane recovery, commencement weekend or a special landscape project, you can expect to see Seymore at the site and on task, Pelland said.

“Whether he is running a salt-spreader or the hydraulic loader, a chainsaw or a pole pruner, his coworkers all know that with Avon Seymore they will be getting exceptional work, done with pride and done to the finish.”


Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 3,2004

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