Caretaker’s University roots run deep

by Ada Simanduyeva

During the summer, his teams plant greenery that gives the University campus a natural feel in an urban setting.
During the winter, his teams plow away what nature dumps on campus roads and sidewalks.
Les Potts, the University’s grounds caretaker, is in charge of managing the University’s landscapes, including the snow-removal duties of 45 sidewalk miles and eight miles of campus streets.
Potts heads the University Department of Facilities Management land-care unit, which this year will include 14 new gardeners and as many as 70 student employees during the summer.
“The idea is that you are working in a dynamic environment that changes from season to season, and each season itself can vary year to year, and with that it offers challenges, so you’re not continually doing things the same over and over again,” Potts said.
A 20-year veteran of campus landscape, Potts began his career as a University gardener while taking classes. After graduating in 1977 with an agriculture degree, he began working full time. The University offered him a position working with plant material and landscape on the St. Paul campus.
“I’ve been at the right place at the right time since then,” Potts said.
Phil McDonald, the chief of staff to the vice president of University services, said that Potts and his unit received a lot of positive feedback regarding the snow removal and their overall performance. McDonald has worked with and managed Potts for 12 years.
“He tries to do what’s best in the interests of the University,” McDonald said.
In the winter months, Potts and two other supervisors scan the Internet for weather updates — instead of the sometimes inaccurate television weather — where they try to anticipate coming snowstorm routes.
Early each year, Potts sends a letter out to various departments, asking for the schedule of their winter events. The heads-up allows Potts and his crew to prioritize campus areas that need immediate clearing after excessive snowfall.
During the 1991 Halloween snowstorm, Potts and his employees worked the entire weekend for 42 hours, only to have Mother Nature drop another five inches Sunday evening.
Snow removal is only the tip of the iceberg. Potts manages the entire outside presentation of the campus — rain, snow or shine. It is important to be able to maintain the current conditions of the campus landscapes before implementing drastic changes, Potts said.
“If you can’t maintain what you’ve changed, then you’re not solving the problem,” Potts said.
The key to the success of the University’s land-care team is the excellent employees, Potts said. He assigns each of his employees a particular area of the campus, which he says gives them a sense of ownership and pride.
Co-workers say Potts takes care of the people as well as the plants around him.
He helped his gardeners receive pay raises and is involved in protecting trees around construction sites, said Jim Blake, a facilities support supervisor.
“I think he is doing a lot to take control over the grounds,” Blake added.
Potts said the land-care unit is responsible for how people perceive the University — whether they take classes or are just driving through. His teams’ work is the first and the last impression visitors to the campus have of the University, Potts said.