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Steve Dobbs and Campus Beautification
A Beautiful Education
Through the campus beautification efforts of Steve Dobbs and his crew, OSU shines a bright orange for future, current and past students.
Story by Katie Parish
For more than 200,000 people, the campus of Oklahoma State University has been a home away from home. While going off to college can be an exciting and sometimes terrifying rite of passage, nothing can help soothe such fears quite like an inviting and beautiful campus.
In the nearly 125 years since its founding in Stillwater, OSU’s campus has blossomed into just such a welcoming place. The dusty prairie has given way to a lush campus with august brick buildings, revered traditions and one bright instantly recognizable color.
For the past three years, Steve Dobbs has been in charge of campus beautification and not only maintaining the brilliance but also allowing it to flourish.
Before attending OSU, Dobbs stood in awe of the campus and its grandeur. The Sallisaw, Okla., native is the son of two farmers and the grandchild of avid gardeners. He got involved with 4-H at an early age, and year after year he would visit the Stillwater campus for the Oklahoma 4-H Roundup conference. Every visit solidified his choice. There was never a question where he would go to college.
“I had such a good time at Oklahoma State,” Dobbs says. “When you come here, it just feels right. You become part of the family and learn to be an independent adult.”
While at OSU, Dobbs was a member of the FarmHouse fraternity and the horticulture club. He was also an active participant in community service projects. He graduated with a bachelor’s of science in horticulture in 1981 and received his first job offer from OSU right out of college. He started as an extension agriculture horticulturist with the OSU Cooperative Extension in Muskogee County.
After three years in eastern Oklahoma, Dobbs realized he would need more education to pursue further career options. He went to the University of Arkansas and earned a master’s degree in horticulture.
Home Again ... and Again
Dobbs then spent four years working for the extension service in Florida, but the draw of Cowboy Country eventually pulled him back. Dobbs returned to Stillwater in 1990 and worked as a consumer horticulture specialist with the extension service for another five years.
When Dobbs’ father died in 1992, he says he felt the need return home and help his mother with the family’s farm in Sallisaw. Dobbs met and married his wife, Jo Alice, shortly after the move. He also opened his own greenhouse business on the farm, growing plants and doing residential and commercial landscaping projects. After seven years in Sallisaw, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith recruited Dobbs to work as its grounds director. He would hold the position for nearly a decade.
In early 2010, Dobbs heard about an open position at OSU. He applied, was hired as the grounds and landscape manager and eagerly returned.
“Once you get the orange in your blood, there really is no turning back,” Dobbs says.
It’s the Details
Dobbs says one of the biggest changes in OSU’s campus beautification is planning. Instead of just focusing on the maintenance of campus, now Physical Plant Grounds and Landscape Services focuses on three aspects: design, installation and maintenance. Landscaping designs are created in-house, with assistance from outside landscape architects on larger projects. An installation crew ensures proper attention is given to the planting of many flora varieties. Even landscaping maintenance is being approached from a different perspective.
“The difference is we are not a botanical garden. We’re a college campus, and we have to design with different things in mind,” Dobbs says. “Once you are here maintaining it and know the specific environments, you know how to match the right plant material to the right location.”
As manager of grounds and landscaping, Dobbs says every day can be different, and that makes it exciting. Teams focus on small, everyday projects and long-range plans that often accompany campus construction.
“Some folks think our job is seasonal,” Dobbs says. “But we are responsible for litter and trash pickup, snow and ice removal, cleanup after tailgating and more.”
To keep up more than 800 acres of OSU’s Stillwater campus, Dobbs needs a large crew — 55 employees with eight equipment operators and a couple of mechanics to keep the fleet and equipment running. Forty-seven employees work full time in the design, installation and maintenance parts of campus beautification.
Students are an additional critical part of Dobbs’ crew. Dobbs hires about 20 students and interns in the summer to assist with mowing. The department also works closely with campus student groups on programs such as Tree Campus USA, which is coordinated through the Arbor Day Foundation.
OSU received Tree Campus USA status in 2011. There are several requirements and campuses must apply for the program. Once selected, schools must maintain the yearly requirements and reapply to keep the status.
“It shows our dedication to tree planting and care at the university as part of our sustainable goals,” Dobbs says.
ECO-OSU, a student group dedicated to campus sustainability efforts, helped purchase GPS equipment through a grant. GPS is being used to identify and catalog the trees on campus. In addition to the tree type, it can record a tree’s height, width and maintenance needs. As of the end of February, the group had inventoried 2,167 trees on approximately 560 acres using the GPS system.
A Beautiful Education
Dobbs hopes his vision will help steer campus beautification for decades to come. After all, he sees the work he and his team do as serving an educational purpose.
“When people come on campus, whether they’re students, parents or visitors, we want them to be able to learn about the plant material, designs and sustainable projects we’re working on,” Dobbs says. “We want to be known as the place people come to learn about different trees or plants in Oklahoma.”
Signage across campus highlights unique trees and plants. Many signs include a small code that can be scanned with a smartphone, launching a web page with more about the greenery. Landscape Services also created an Instagram account to share photos of their projects.
Alumni, students and visitors are noticing campus beautification changes. Dobbs says a study shows that the appearance of a campus can drastically influence the
decision of a prospective student. Sometimes, a student decides whether to attend a university within the first 15 minutes of stepping on campus.
“A lot of people don’t know how to explain it,” Dobbs says.
“But because the landscaping looks clean and well taken
care of, it conveys a message of feeling safe to people. It shows we take pride in our campus and pride in our
Dobbs’ work has complemented efforts by Undergraduate Admissions and helped OSU welcome the largest freshman class at a public university in state history in 2012. During the past three years, the university has seen a nearly 10 percent increase in student enrollment on the Stillwater campus.
Whether it’s creating planting areas or connecting with students, Dobbs and the Physical Plants Grounds and Landscape Services crew have the OSU campus growing in the right direction.
“We are here for the students and visitors,” Dobbs says. “Even small tasks like picking up a piece of trash are just as important as creating a beautiful landscape. People see the changes, and we want our institution to be known not only as a great university but also as a beautiful campus.”
Steve Dobbs and landscape technology specialist William Hilson designed the cowboy boot topiary at the corner of University Avenue and Hester Street.
The 8-foot-tall topiary weighs 2,300 pounds and is a focal point of the redesigned landscape near Theta Pond.
It is made up of eight ornamental annuals including dwarf mondo grass, creeping fig, and bronze-colored hens and chicks, which gives the block “O” its orange hue.
Follow Physical Plant Landscaping Services on Instagram at Instagram.com/okstategardens.
More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association here. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership go to orangeconnection.org/join or call 405-744-5368.