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Sudderth plants, not paints, but the campus is his canvas

Tom Sudderth, 2011 Massey Award winner
Tom Sudderth, 2011 Massey Award winner

Tom Sudderth’s official title is landscape installation supervisor, but he has been likened by some as a painter who uses this campus as a canvas, and the colors of nature as his palette.

Sudderth has too much Southern humility to take such a fancy notion to heart, yet he is grateful that people think so highly of him – highly enough to include that description in nominating him for the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award that he won this past spring.

“I became a fan of Carolina in 1957 when I was 8 years old, sitting on a little stool in my daddy’s den, watching the national championship game that went into triple overtime,” Sudderth said. “I remember when they won, I fell off the stool.”

When Chancellor Holden Thorp called to tell Sudderth he had won a Massey, he was so excited he could have fallen off the stool again, if he still had it.

“When I read the list of people who have won this award, it’s humbling to be a part of it,” Sudderth said.

He has been a part of Carolina since he began work here in August 1984 – after his mother-in-law, a librarian in Hamlet, saw a classified ad in The News & Observer for a job opening.

At the time, Sudderth was working as an urban landscaper for the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the city where he had worked since graduating from the University of Georgia with a forestry degree in 1972.

Sudderth took the UNC job that was advertised and has never found another one that could tempt him to leave.

He traces the path that led him into this line of work to the green thumb of his grandmother, who would always invite him out to work in her yard in Greensboro whenever Sudderth and his family came to visit.

“She was a natural,” Sudderth said. “She had no formal training, but I think she could make a dead stick grow.

“I remember how she cut off a branch of forsythia and scratched out a little bit of dirt to cover it. She said, ‘The next time you come over here it will be rooted, and we’ll clip it off and you’ll have a plant of yellow bell.’ I thought that was pretty neat. I still do.”

As for being compared to a painter, Sudderth said there are similarities, but real differences, too – primarily because it takes plants much longer to grow to maturity then it takes for paint to dry.

The ornamental grasses he chose for the planters on the terraces on the east-end addition to Kenan Stadium are a case in point, Sudderth said.

Look at them now, he said, and they look like evenly spaced clumps of dull green.

But when Sudderth looks at them, he envisions what they will look like two or three years from now. The Pink Muley Grass, for instance, will boast cotton-candy pink puffs at the top of thin grass stalks standing 2- to 3-feet tall.

Then there is the Purple Love Grass that will grow as high as two feet from the base with widely spreading culms, each one having three to four alternate leaves.

The panicum virgatum, or “Dallas Blues,” a powder-blue foliage that will grow as high as 5 feet, and in early fall – prime football season – will be topped with stunning plumes of reddish purple.

“Going back to the idea of the campus as a canvas, in many ways it is, but in one fundamental respect it is not because it is forever changing,” Sudderth said. “What that means is that our work is never complete.”

Even after 27 years on the job, that suits Sudderth just fine.

Grounds Maintenance Inspector Paul Rigsbee said Sudderth has always been the go-to guy for planting and landscaping on campus.

“Tom’s knowledge in plant materials and site preparation and dedication to detail has transformed our campus into a world-class leader and magnified its beauty,” Rigsbee said. “When you see the beautiful plantings on campus, think of Tom. He saw the vision first.”

Another employee who appreciates Sudderth’s work is Patricia Langelier, who before moving to Facilities Services worked at the School of Government, where Sudderth designed an enclosed garden in honor of Gladys Coates and a landscaped courtyard dedicated to the memory of Nanette Mengel. That courtyard has been used as a kind of “exterior dining room” ever since, Langelier said.

“One of the project’s challenges was to develop a buffer from the busy intersection of Country Club and South roads,” she said. “Tom implemented an elegant and low-cost solution that has enabled students as well as visiting state and local officials to enjoy the dining area with a minimum of traffic noise.”

Maybe that is the other flaw in the comparison of the campus to a canvas: A campus is not complete without putting people in it.

“One of the most exciting things for our crew members to do after they have finished a project is to go back and watch people using it,” Sudderth said. “Seeing people enjoying the results of our labor is the best way we can tell we are doing our jobs right.”

Originally published by the University Gazette: August 24, 2011

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