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(A version of this feature article on Bill Meyer appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of Winona Currents,WSU's feature magazine for alumni and friends of the institution.)
Anyone who knows WSU Senior Groundskeeper Bill Meyer knows that he's happiest when he's working outdoors.
It seems Bill has tailored his life around the people and places he enjoys best. Whether it’s a sunny autumn evening in the Mississippi backwaters, beautifying the green spaces at WSU or taking his granddaughter, Abbey, on a guided botanical tour around his home outside Trempealeau, Wis., just being outside is when Bill finds happiness.
"The best part of my job at Winona State is the time I spend outdoors, planning where trees should go on campus, then planting them, and keeping them healthy," Bill said. "I see the effects of my work everyday."
Throughout the many twists and turns of Bill's life, trees and plants have always held a central role, along with his love of family.
Bill grew up in St. Paul, Minn., worked at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum while a student there, and after graduating in the early 1970s, found himself working as a horticulturist on the Deer Lake estate of former governor Elmer Andersen, near St. Croix Falls, Wis.
Having just graduated from college, "Working at the St. Croix Falls estate was an ideal introduction to horticulture," Bill said. "I had a greenhouse and worked with annuals, perennials and vegetables. I'd start plants in the green house, then bring them outside and plant them all over the grounds and around the pond. I even worked with water plants in the pond. On weekends, I'd occasionally go fishing with the former Governor."
During the years in St. Croix Falls, Bill and his wife, Joanne, whom he met while at the U of M, lived in a carriage house. He walked a lakeside path to work each day and then dabbled in every kind of horticulture, including grafting, and propagating all types of plants.
Eventually, that work led Bill and his wife to buy a small farm and start their own business. While totally remodeling the farm house, the couple ran a U-pick strawberry business, and Bill worked at a local greenhouse and tree farm.
In the mid-1980s Bill worked for a lawn care company in the Twin Cities, consulting with homeowners about how to keep their lawns green, healthy and weed-free, and attending weekly seminars on turf care.
In 1987, Bill took a position as a groundskeeper at WSU and three years later was promoted to senior groundskeeper.
"When I came to Winona State, we had 15-20 species of trees on campus and a tree budget that allowed for 3-5 new trees a year." Bill said. "Right away, I wanted to expand the diversity of trees, partly for aesthetic reasons, but more importantly to protect the campus from a tree disease or insect problem that could wipe out all of a particular species."
Today, the Winona State campus boasts more than 90 species of trees.
Bill credits WSU president Darrell Krueger for his sense of vision for the 55 acres of campus grounds, and his supervisors for empowering him to make decisions regarding tree selection, placement, and care.
"One day while talking to Dr. Krueger, I wondered aloud why there were no trees along Huff Street, one of the main approaches to campus," Bill said. "He made it happen. Within weeks, we were planting several large trees along that campus border."
A couple years ago, Bill was proud to be involved in Dr. Krueger's "2000 Trees for 2001" in the city. Winona State University led the project to have thousands of new trees planted in the community to replace trees lost during a storm the previous year. Hundreds of trees were planted on campus, and along the boulevards throughout the city. Hundreds more were given to homeowners to plant themselves.
"That project had excellent interaction between the university, the city, the technical college, and several civic groups," Bill said. "The following spring, Dr. Krueger and I drove around town and were happy to see a high survival rate among the new trees."
Bill is quick to share credit for Winona State's campus beauty with his maintenance staff co-workers Amy Welch, Leon Bowman, Kevin Kimmel, Bryan Dulas and Scott Engler. "Trees are just a part of the total picture here," Bill said. "There are also beautiful flowers, shrubs, plants, sidewalks, benches and fountains that make this campus so attractive. It's really a team effort."
Each year a number of student assistants also help the WSU staff take care of campus grounds.
"It gives me a kick to see the students come along in their understanding of trees," Bill said. "We play a little tree identification game with them while they work here. I hope they get some kind of a spark of love for trees and carry that with them after they graduate."
Over the years, as Bill was expanding the variety of trees on campus, he received input from some biology professors who suggested the campus contain more of the trees native to Minnesota.
Recently, while talking to Dr. Krueger and a local legislator, Bill casually commented that the campus was very close to having all species of trees native to Minnesota.
"I've learned you have to be a little careful with that kind of comment," Bill said. "The president told me to get them all. By the end of this growing season, we'll have met that goal."
Bill has hand-drawn maps of where each tree is on campus, and uses them to plan future plantings or to keep track of trees that need extra care. Last year, he began planning a booklet that would more accurately record the location of trees on campus.
"I got a little worried," Bill said, "when I realized that a lot of the information about the trees was only in my head. My memory isn't what it used to be, so I wanted to get it down on paper."
The seed was planted and with the help of the WSU Publications Office, Bill set to work in creating the "Trees of WSU" booklet with maps of all campus trees. Dr. Krueger liked the booklet so much, he asked that it be expanded into book form with photographs and descriptions of many of the trees.
"It's really a treasure for this campus," Dr. Krueger said. "The book serves as a historical record of campus grounds, but also can be a field guide for students interested in biology, botany and horticulture. Also, many of the trees on campus are donated by alumni, faculty, staff, and local community members. The book can serve to recognize those gifts, and hopefully encourage more."
Bill's love of Winona State and trees continues through his family. His daughter, Naomi, graduated from WSU in 1996 and also works on campus at The National Child Protection Training Center. His son, Adrian, is a 2000 graduate of WSU and is a police officer at the Unversity of Wisconisn - La Crosse.
Whenever he can, Bill spends time with his granddaughter, Abbey Rose (Naomi's daughter), walking and talking about trees and plants.
Bill's stewardship and love of nature shows. A short walk across the WSU campus is evidence enough.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 08, 2008 13:59 by