Four hours before the sun rises, Lori Davidson starts her day.
She knows she gets up when some of the students haven’t even gone to bed yet.
Lori pulls up to campus with 30 minutes to spare before the opossum scampers from the Alumni House all the way up to the Barbara Massey Center at 5 a.m.
Most of the grounds crew clocks in between 6 and 7 a.m. They report to their designated areas of campus, empty the trash and tackle urgent needs, which sometimes includes taking T-shirts off the bruin statue.
Groundskeepers wait to fire up the blowers until a godlier hour – 8 a.m.
The grounds already look worthy of being on the cover of a magazine.
Belmont University is considered “pristinely kept,” according to Architectural Digest, which placed Belmont 11th on the list of the prettiest college campuses in America. Belmont’s landscaping and grounds crew, a team of 13 men and women, are often unseen by students, but for many students, the landscaping is the reason they came to Belmont.
To the landscaping crew, their job is second nature, but to students it contains something captivating.
“There’s a lot of work that’s unseen, so it feels like magic,” says Poly Ancelet, a junior at Belmont.
Landscaping occasionally brings the outside in, for example, to set up the Christmas tree inside the Grand Maddox Atrium.
“We overlap with a lot of things that are outside what you traditionally think of as landscaping,” says Matt Stein.
Matt is known to introduce himself as, “just one of the crew,” but his colleagues say otherwise.
“He’s the mayor of Belmont,” says his colleague Drew Cochran.
When Matt’s working, he’s constantly waving and chatting with people. This morning he grounded himself even before he got to work, by listening to philosophy and theology podcasts, his morning ritual.
Today they plan to set up for Christmas and the high is 70 degrees for the day, but it won’t stay like this for long.
In the dead of winter, the grounds crew clears snow. In the heat of summer, it carries 300-foot-hoses filled with water. A landscaper essentially does anything that needs to be done in any kind of weather on every part of campus.
Dan Garver checks his area, Bear Creek Lawn, while Aidan Driscoll takes care of Caldwell and Thrailkill. Drew works on the fountains and Lori’s specialty is the rose garden. Once their areas have been checked, their feet shuffle into the shop that smells like a hardware store.
The place has a cracked red concrete floor, a window that doesn’t let much natural light in and mismatched tables used as desks. For such a beautifully landscaped campus, it’s ironic how utilitarian their work room is.
At 9 a.m., the Bell Tower rings and it’s time to touch base at a team meeting. Hungry crew members unseal sandwich bags and drink from reusable water bottles, plastic foam cups and cold plastic soda bottles that sit on tabletops.
During the daily morning run-down, manager Melissa Finan-Demalon presents a new spout and hose trigger. Then the team bounces ideas back and forth about working with the newly planted pansies. Bear Creek hasn’t been running properly this school year due to a leak, so Dan explained that they are still looking for it in the pipe’s complicated angles.
At this time, a few years ago, Dan would’ve been sitting in an office chair. He used to work in the business side of healthcare until he found out he had cancer. He realized he would rather work outside. Now he gets 10,000 to 20,000 steps every day, he’s lost 40 pounds and is taking less medication than when he started.
Compared to his previous office job, spending his day outside is very rewarding. He enjoys seeing the results of his work in landscaping.
Melissa continues to read the list of accomplished tasks, upcoming events and plans for the rest of the day. The crew nods in acknowledgement, a simple gesture of respect, to whoever speaks. Behind Melissa sits a sign that reads, “create your own sunshine.”
Once they touch base, “it really is back to leaf removal,” says Melissa.
But first, a few crew members put finishing touches on the Christmas tree while others hang wreaths.
To make sure wreaths are in the right place, they have to set them up with the lights on.
Melissa’s phone rings and it’s one of the groundskeepers asking where a specific light switch is. She knows where every outside light switch is on campus.
Students passing by compliment the tree.
“It’s nice to know your work is appreciated,” says Drew.
Compliments remind them how much work they do. They’re also reminded after school breaks when the grounds haven’t been kept for a week.
"When the place is unattended for a week, you don’t realize, I guess, how much you do, until you’re not here for a whole week,” says Drew.
It’s 1:30 p.m. Lori comes back to campus with a loaded plastic bag of spray bottles and other supplies. She gives the bag to Matt, who is blowing leaves by a gazebo on the North Lawn.
In a previous job, Lori answered crisis calls for a sexual assault center. Nurturing and making a difference in the world have always been important to her. Mid-sentence, she interrupts herself and points to a bush, “that needs to be watered.”
There hasn’t been much rain in the past few weeks. The weather indicates what tasks need to be done.
When there’s a really bad freeze in the winter, it is crucial to restore those plants back to health in the summer. Last year, the laurels and boxwoods were annihilated by a freeze.
Otherwise, the summertime is when pressure washing and paint jobs get accomplished.
Usually in the fall, thousands of tulips are planted, but this year they planted pansies instead.
The bloom of spring is very exciting for the landscaping team; flowering bulbs are the “fruits of your labor,” says Melissa.
The crew notices springtime behavior when the temperatures are over 55 degrees for three consecutive days or when the rain pours down.
If it rains, the crew checks inventory, empties the trash and dusts the lights in the parking garages.
While those tasks aren’t as obvious to students, it’s hard to miss when there’s a person inside the fountain.
Drew checks on the fountains while he listens to Fantasy Football podcasts. He checks the pH and chlorine levels and makes sure everything in the water is balanced.
“We often laugh when we’re cleaning out a fountain, that we’re stealing someone’s dreams,” says Melissa, with a smile.
The fountains don’t usually have too many coins to clean out, but Drew occasionally fishes out a phone or credit card.
Between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., the crew returns to the shop to gather their things before heading home.
“It takes 15-20 minutes at the end of the day just to wrap up usually, to get your stuff put away and make sure there’s nothing out,” says Lori.
By the time the last groundskeeper leaves, students still have a long day ahead of them. In 12 hours, Lori and the team will wake up to start another day.
This article was written by Liz Markay