It’s been a rough Thursday night. It’s getting late; the Cottage bouncers won’t let you in, and the seven beers you just chugged are slowly finding their way into your system. You say your goodbyes and as you pass Prospect House, your evening suddenly comes tumbling out of your mouth and splashes all over the flagstones. You stumble home and fall into bed, but the contents of your stomach remain, lonely and congealed in Prospect Garden. What happens to your vomit? Which magical little elves comes and clean it up, so when you groan your way out of bed, you don’t step in it on your way to class?
The singularly important responsibility of cleaning up vomit belongs not to elves but regular people—the Princeton Grounds and Maintenance Crew.
Tucked away into a cramped office at the back of MacMillan, Jim Consolloy oversees the operations of grounds maintenance. A soft-spoken, genial man, Consolloy has been at Princeton since 1989 and doesn’t plan on leaving soon.
“The grounds maintenance manager is a long-tenured position,” he said. “My predecessor was here for 13 years and the one before that was here for 15. And the very first grounds manager was here from 1928 until 1962.” He leans back in his chair. “Yep, we’re usually here for a good while,” he said, tugging at his Facilities and Grounds vest, (“Jim” is proudly emblazoned on the top right side).
With a staff of 40 and responsibilities from soil aeration to tree fertilization, Consolloy keeps busy mostly with meetings, memos, and administrative duties. However, the duties and day of his crew start long before most students hit the snooze button. Normally, they pick up litter and clean up the previous night’s destruction from six to seven.
This is often a thankless task. “Some students are really appreciative. They say hello and thanks. The rest just sort of walk by without noticing.”
At daybreak, the groundskeepers come across some exceedingly strange things. George Morgan, now 63, has worked for Princeton since 1961, on the grounds crew since the mid-70s. Now in charge of the crew that covers campus east of Washington Road, Morgan has just about seen it all.
Oddly enough, some of the strangest sights he has come across during his tenure involve the Robertson Fountain.
“We came out and there was this Volkswagen, the water up to its doors. Then there was this other time,” he paused, relishing the moment. “We were on our way to start the day and there’s something stuck on top of the fountain—where the water comes out. We get a little closer,” he paused again, for effect. “And it’s a pig’s head. Can you believe that? A real pig’s head stuck up there.”
“It can be weird sometimes,” he added. “We’ll find a chair or a couch just thrown out sometimes. But normally, it’s just cups, cans and trash.”
After dealing with the trash and “objects” left over from the night before, at around 7:30, the crews begin mowing, leaf-blowing and “general” grounds maintenance in the academic and administrative buildings. After a 9:30 break they move on to the residential areas.
“We try to be as unobtrusive as possible. We know students need their sleep and so try keep out of their way and make sure most of the work in their class area is done by the time they get there,” he said. “I guess you could say the creed is—unlike most of Princeton,” he grins sardonically, “Try NOT to be obvious.”
Following the Groundskeeping creed, unbeknownst to most students, the University puts a huge amount of thought, effort, and money into making sure Princeton is and remains gorgeous. In fact, most of the decisions about grounds and grounds planning are made with strict regard to how it will affect the “student.”
Starting at the Board of Trustees’ Grounds and Buildings Committee (formulates policy and gives permission) to the Facilities Planning Group (procures funds and makes schedules) to the weekly-meeting Landscape Committee (implements policy and schedules), attention is given to how the grounds and plants will affect the students not only physically but psychologically as well.
For example, the grounds plans of the forthcoming Whitman College have, down to the foot, a detailing of which and what trees and plants will go where. Each tree and shrub is carefully selected first by a professional landscape architect and then reviewed by Consolloy himself.
“We not only look at whether this tree is right for this climate, is the soil right, etc., but also how it will look and the effect it will have on students. For example, the evergreen. We use a lot of them on campus—especially near Prospect Garden,” he said, becoming animated.
“Why? They remain green year round and they give off a warmth,” he paused. “Not just physically—blocking the wind, but coming back from class on one of those nasty late winter days, would you want to see a spindly, dormant, half-dead-looking oak or a giant, vibrant, snow-laden evergreen?” He paused again. “You know, things on campus just aren’t thrown in randomly.”
In fact, the Princeton grounds department has honed the planting, placement and upkeep of its trees to something of an art. According to Consolloy (who has seen every other Ivy with the exception of Dartmouth), Princeton has one of the most intense grounds maintenance programs in the Ivy League.
“We have a more intense planting schedule. It’s not excessive, but much more labor-intensive,” he said. “And, unlike other schools, we’ve recognized the value of having older trees and spending more on keeping them healthy and growing than constantly planting new ones.”
Reunions is consistently one of the biggest problems the Grounds staff faces. Every year, the painstakingly maintained grounds are virtually destroyed in little over a week. A massive amount of beer (which, although raising the pH of the soil slightly, doesn’t really affect grass growth) is spilled, grass is trampled, and trash piles up everywhere.
Still, Morgan is quite complimentary of the graduated Princetonians.
“They’re always very courteous. Even when I’m setting up bleachers or tents or tables or whatever, they’ll insist on having a drink with me,” he said. “Although I can’t drink on the job, they get real excited when I accept the beers and just put them in my pockets for later.”
Consolloy, views Reunions through a different, more administrative perspective. “It really is one of the toughest times for us. During Reunions, we sort of lose control and we usually have to restart everything,” he said with an air of resignation. “We aerate the compacted soil, reseed, watch it grow, and then it happens all over again.”