On Oct. 20, the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) recognized the Denison Grounds Crew with three national awards:
- Grounds and Landscape Manager Kevin Mercer received the Special Award of Distinguished Service for being “willing to jump in and help with any committee that needs it and the first to always recognize his team for the accomplishments they achieve. … Mercer is a positive example of supporting PGMS and sharing his teams’ trials and successes with others.”
- Denison received the Grand Award in the University and College Grounds – Small category, the highest achievement for a small university
- In the new Olmsted Property category, Denison tied for second place — alongside the U.S. Capitol grounds — behind the storied Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina
“I am so proud and grateful for Kevin and his team for the thoughtful attention they pay to every detail of our campus,” said Denison President Adam Weinberg. “The work they do creates an incredible campus that enhances the experience of our students, staff, faculty, and visitors. We all benefit from their talents and commitment to the campus.”
A beautiful backdrop and a storied legacy
Nature provided Denison with a magnificent canvas, and the campus master plan, devised in 1918, layered atop it a blueprint so well-conceived that the university continues to follow it to this day. To many, this comes as no surprise — it was designed by the renowned landscape architectural firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of landscape architecture and designer of such iconic spaces as New York City’s famed Central Park.
Today, thanks to Denison’s dedicated grounds professionals, Denison’s gorgeous campus thrives — the culmination of excellence in planning and execution. Mercer and his crew — Ann Cherry, Dan Freeman, John Hill, Gram Lewis, Dominic Moore, John Palmer, Caden Snyder, and Mac Walker — carefully tend to the planting, trimming, watering, and weeding of the 150-acre campus.
Not only was Mercer the driving force behind Denison’s recent recognition, but he also spurred PGMS to create a new category to recognize Olmsted properties across the country, connecting the grounds organization with the National Association for Olmsted Parks to create an award recognizing the care and maintenance of parks and grounds designed by the famed landscape architectural firm.
“The team is pretty upset we didn’t come in first on the Olmsted award,” Mercer said. “But it’s not so bad to lose to the Biltmore and tie with the National Mall.”
For Mercer, these awards validate his team’s efforts. “I’m so proud of them,” he said. “We are competing against places with many times our resources and employees, and we always end up in the top tier.”
A grounds team rooted in shared values
Their success is no accident — it results from a team culture based on shared values: concern for others, excellence, professional development, sustainability, accountability, and stewardship.
Mercer’s values-based leadership is grounded in something Denison Chief Financial Officer David English told him when Mercer joined the university in 2017.
“He told me that our students are our biggest focus, and we’re part of that work, too,” Mercer said. “I realized that our product was bigger than just taking care of the grounds — we are part of an entire campus team to support our students.”
The team keeps those values in mind as they spend their days shaping, clearing, and pruning.
Palmer, who has been with Denison for 33 years, likes the feeling that everyone is pulling together. “Kevin shares the work out evenly,” he said. “We have to buckle down, but we can enjoy each other, too.”
Hill says he enjoys student interactions the most. He especially appreciates getting to know the international students who often join the crew as much-needed extra hands in the summer. “I like teaching them how to use machinery,” Hill said. “They do things here they would never do in their home countries.”
A partnership with a passionate advocate
The grounds crew has a vigorous ally in Jean Preston ’55, a master gardener and champion for beautiful environments and their benefits — a passion her husband honored by establishing the Jean Holman Preston Horticultural Fund at Denison.
Preston and Mercer work together, drawing up lists and plans for the trees, shrubs, and flower beds that beautify the campus, deriving their inspiration from the Olmsted master plan. Through the years, they have developed a special friendship.
“Jean is a mentor to me,” Mercer said. “When someone believes in you and your team, you want to do something special for them.”
Mercer wanted Preston’s efforts and support to be celebrated. He contacted Dede Petri, president of the Olmsted Association, about Preston and her work bringing Olmsted’s vision to life. Petri responded by offering to visit campus to lead a June 2022 ceremony in honor of Preston and her recognition “that landscapes are not just pretty spaces. They are an intrinsic part of the university’s distinctive liberal arts experience.“
“It was the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birthday and a great way to honor Jean,” Mercer said.
Putting culture first
With “concern for others” at the top of their values list, it’s not surprising that Mercer and his team keep their eye out for ways to lend others a helping hand.
In 2020, they learned about Andrew, a friend’s young son, a little boy who loved baseball and was hospitalized with leukemia. After weeks of organizing and preparations, the crew built a miniature baseball diamond in Andrew’s backyard and — at Mercer’s request — Andrew’s favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, pitched in as well. Everything was ready just in time for Andrew’s return from the hospital.
Andrew’s family sends updates to the Denison team. The good news: Andrew is in remission. “I sometimes wonder if we helped a little,” Palmer said, “knowing he could look out at that yard and keep his hopes up.”
Mercer recently sent Andrew a special baseball bat from the Louisville Slugger Museum.
Mining the peacefulness of nature
Mercer’s most recent campus project follows the Olmsted directive to create a “sense of the peacefulness of nature” and “soothe and restore the spirit.” He and Japanese Professor Michael Tangeman resuscitated a mostly forgotten nook between Doane Library and Fellows Hall. They created a restful Japanese garden with a bridge across a water feature and a small bench for contemplation.
For Mercer, it was yet another opportunity to build a new partnership, create another moment of beauty on campus, and celebrate his team.
“We just work together to make this a great place for students,” he said.