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Avid Arborist
Tree expert Ann Williams keeps the U of U campus looking green and good.

by Ann Whitney Floor

Knee X-ray
Photo by Roger Tuttle

When Ann Williams was hired by the U’s grounds department in 1995, one of her first tasks was to plant a Scots pine in a grove of conifers situated at the bottom of a grassy slope near South Campus Drive. For more than a decade she has nurtured that tree and watched it grow to its current height of 30 feet. Pointing to it, she says in a hushed voice, “This is why I love my job.”

Williams seems comfortable in her dark blue denims and brown plaid flannel shirt, with a hint of a red U of U tee peeking out from the neckline. Her heavy, steel-toe Georgia boots are required for her work as one of the U’s three certified arborists. “You never know when you might need to use a chainsaw,” she says. Williams can often be seen driving one of the big mowers or plows—an unmistakable silhouette with her broad-brimmed safari-style hat.

When she’s not working outside—which is what she likes best about her job—Williams might be found at the grounds department headquarters on South Campus Drive, home to the U’s 50 full-time grounds crew members. Built in the 1940s to house soldiers during World War II, the long white shed retains the flavor of the era and serves as a giant garage for the roughly 19 vehicles and five carts that make up the grounds fleet.

In her office, oversized aerial photos of campus cover the walls, some with yellow stickies marking different locations for mowing or plowing. In one corner of the room hangs a diploma from Utah State University in what looks like a birch-bark frame. A closer look reveals an ordinary frame with birch bark glued onto it—by Williams. Indeed, when she’s not on campus, she’s often home in her craft shed working on stained glass, silver-smithing, and other projects.

Growing up in Salt Lake City, Williams found that her love of the outdoors took root and grew. “As a kid, I remember getting up on a Saturday morning and turning over the whole garden before anyone else got up,” she says. She also enjoyed camping with her family in Big Cottonwood Canyon and spent a week each summer at a camp in Brighton.

It was no surprise, then, that Williams came to dream of becoming a forester with the U.S. Forest Service. She started classes at Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University) but was dismayed to learn that there were no jobs available in forestry at the time. After dabbling in range management (and discovering she wasn’t interested in sheep and cattle), Williams finally found her niche in plant science. “I was a lazy student—everything came easily to me,” she says, “but a couple of my professors encouraged me to work hard and do well—so I did.” After two years at SUU and one at the U, she moved to Logan to finish her studies.

Williams gained experience as part of a “mow and go” crew, in which a team of mowers worked a regular schedule for various clients, and later, by maintaining the grounds of Primary Children’s Medical Center. In 1995 she was hired by the U as a member of the grounds crew, then moved to a “tree spray” position, and eventually became a foreman. Now, from 7 in the morning until past 3 in the afternoon, she and her team cover the western third of campus (about 10 acres each), mowing, weeding, and edging.


“Ann is a cornerstone for the grounds department in both word and action,” says Brian Nielsen, associate director of buildings and grounds at Plant Operations. “In addition to monitoring the daily maintenance needs of lower campus, she oversees the record-keeping for the spray program, which requires meeting stringent state requirements. She also directed and monitored the first cataloging of the U’s 12,000-plus tree arboretum,” he adds.

Occasionally, Williams is asked by facilities management to comment on proposed landscape plans for new buildings. “Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. We just try to get rid of problems before they get built in,” she says. When the Marriott Library was considering a rooftop garden that would have meant finding a way to get a mower to the roof on a regular basis, Williams pleaded, “Please don’t do that to us!” And they didn’t.

“Ann truly enjoys what she does and gives quality work in anything she undertakes,” says Nielsen.

That quality work is especially evident on the first day of school in late August and on graduation day in early May. “We want the campus to look perfect,” she says. “The parents are here, and we want to make a good impression, so the weeks leading up to those events are fairly hectic.” Evenings can also be chaotic—especially in winter. Depending on the cultural and athletics events taking place on campus, there might be 10 crew members and four plow operators at work keeping the walks clear of snow and the steps and special-needs ramps salted.

When a snowstorm hit on Christmas night 2003, the grounds crew was on campus 12 to 18 hours a day for two weeks following. Hundreds of campus trees were damaged, so there was a lot of clean-up to do. It’s hard work and wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but if you ask Ann Williams, she calmly responds, “Actually, after it’s snowed and you’re plowing at night, the campus is gorgeous.”

—Ann Whitney Floor is a writer with University Marketing & Communications.

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Campus Trees

As a result of more than 30 years of plant research on campus by Walter P. Cottam, U of U botanist and co-founder of The Nature Conservancy, the University of Utah campus was named Utah’s state arboretum by the Utah State Legislature in 1961.


The Japanese zelkova (Zelkove serrata) on the south rim of Cottam’s Gulch has a distinctive rust-colored bark and leaves that turn a rich yellow, orange, or burnt umber in the fall. “It’s a perfect tree—no insects, diseases, or cultural problems to speak of. It’s most likely the first zelkova planted in the state,” says Williams. She also loves the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) located south of the Aline W. Skaggs Biology Building, which is covered in purple flowers each spring, and the tall feathery Himalayan pine (Pinus wallichiana) on North Campus Drive directly south of the Rosenblatt House, where president and Mrs. Young reside.

Some of the more unusual trees on campus:

Hardy Rubber Tree (Eucommia ulmoides)
Located southwest of the Sterling W. Sill Center, this tree was tested as a potential source of rubber during World War II because of the latex quality in the veins of its leaves. Fossils of rubber trees have been found in 10- to 25-million-year-old brown coal deposits in Central Europe and North America.

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva)
A solitary Great Basin bristlecone pine stands at the northeast corner of the Sill Center: “Tall and thin—not what you’d expect,” says Williams. This species is remarkable for its ability to live up to 5,000 years—ar longer than any other single living organism—and for its ability to survive extremely adverse growing conditions on mountain tops and ridges.

Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Located on the south bank of Cottam’s Gulch, this 100-year-old giant sequoia has been hit by lightning at least three times. Years ago, the tree was retrofitted with a lightning wire to protect it from further strikes. The wire cable came down from the top of the tree and into the earth, spreading out underground. Several years ago, the cable was cut, so it is currently not functioning.

Mimosa, or Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin)
The last tree to bloom in the spring, the mimosa sprouts feathery, fanlike pink or white blossoms. Two mimosas are located behind the Utah Museum of Natural History, with more along South Campus Drive immediately east of the Field House.

—NOTE: Some of the information above is taken from Trees of the State Arboretum of Utah by Julie Myers and Ann Scott (2006).

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