Wilson retires from UMW after 30 years of advocacy
Jul. 16, 2017
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — At the University of Mary Washington, it's Joni Wilson who speaks for the trees.
According to staff, Wilson, the longtime director of landscape and grounds who will depart in August, has always been a figure like Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" on campus. She speaks up for those whose voices can't be heard: the trees, the birds that make the campus a migratory home and staff who needed an advocate during her 31 years there.
Wilson arrived at UMW in 1986 after serving as the senior gardener for the City of Richmond. She was always looking for a new challenge. Previously interested in medicine and science, she worked for hospitals in Richmond before realizing during a drive in the countryside surrounding the city, and seeing an old cemetery, that she wanted to work taking care of the landscape.
When applying to UMW, she had to change from her green polyester City of Richmond uniform for her interview, but realized she had forgotten dress shoes. She asked her interviewer later if they knew she showed up barefoot and they had no clue, because she walked in with confidence.
And at UMW, Wilson kept evolving and learning.
She is called out in William B. Crawley's book "University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History" for her work ethic and open-yet-businesslike approach to the job, and for being the first woman to hold the position.
While supervising a staff of two dozen, assisted by Richard Blair, she found time to earn her degree in psychology from UMW in 2000.
Crawley continues to say the beauty of the campus owed much to Wilson, whose appreciation of the landscape he called "well-nigh poetic."
Under her stewardship, the campus's layout has changed significantly. She saw the recent demolition of Chandler Hall and building of the University Center, as well as the renovation and addition to Lee Hall, the Randolph and Mason renovations and additions, Woodard Hall's conversion into the business college and the construction of South Hall, Simpson Library, Jepson Hall, Arrington Hall, Alvey Hall, Eagle Village and the Hurley Convergence Center. The school also added campuses in Stafford and King George counties.
During all of that upheaval, when the school expanded from 1.4 million square feet in 1994 to its current 2.5 million square feet, Wilson made sure the natural landscape remained intact.
The linden trees that overlook Ball Circle are fairly original to campus, she said, and preserving these historically valuable trees was "an ongoing battle until the day it opened."
The surviving lindens are the oldest intentional plantings on campus, according to the school. They were planted to line the original entrance to campus.
Preserving those trees meant making sure the roots were not damaged by construction or compacted by vehicles and ensuring the soil wasn't depleted.
"You can't buy trees like that," said John Wiltenmuth, associate vice president of facility services. "The natural environment is not as well appreciated. Those trees were handed down by our predecessors and contribute to the peace and calm people feel coming onto this campus."
Wiltenmuth said the natural environment is "one of the things that sells campus to new students. I'm not sure you can quantify that data, but the school has been recognized many times for its natural beauty.
Landscape and grounds manager Richard Blair, Wilson's friend and lunch companion since 1990, said she spoke up, too, for the majestic magnolia tree outside of Monroe Hall. She had a sidewalk that was compacting its roots taken out and kept a watchful eye on the tree, which is original to the campus, during construction.
He said she also devoted a huge amount of time and research to the Brompton Oak, the school's landmark tree that was featured in Mathew Brady's photos of the Civil War. Legend has it that it shaded Clara Barton as she tended to wounded soldiers.
"A historic tree like that takes work," he said. "She stayed up-to-date on the most recent science, which tells us its roots need air, not over-mulching."
She also took a mass of concrete out of the tree that was installed to stop rot in the early 1900s. Blair said horticulturists now know that method only contributes to decay.
Wilson's job also included cleaning up after storms and snow, treating ash trees to be resistant to the emerald ash bore, lightning protection and stability measures for trees, planting annuals in the school's many planters, taking care of the large grassy squares, sustainability and recycling and her constant networking with the community and students.
Wiltenmuth recalled how, after the derecho five years ago, the campus "needed to look like a postcard again in 24 hours." And it did.
"You can always tell when she's been on campus," Blair said. "She did what needed to be done. She leaves behind piles of weeds she pulled between meetings or this and that."
At UMW for more than 30 years, Wilson continually taught herself the most recent, scientifically backed methods for maintaining the grounds.
In the last 10 years, that focus has shifted to sustainability, as well as native plants and how they affect the wider ecosystem.
She said while it's hard to pick a favorite tree, she loves the sourwoods, which flower white in the spring and turn flame-red every autumn next to Virginia Hall.
Hickories are also special to Wilson, with their long lifespan producing viable seeds at 300 years.
Of course, she also loves the yellowwood near Virginia Hall, with its distinct striped bark.
Most important to the natural habitat, though, could be the oaks, which Wilson said support more than 500 species of caterpillar. In comparison, the non-native ginkgo is home to only one species here.
To share her knowledge, Wilson started "Tree Walks" on campus, leading groups down Campus Walk to talk about the history of the campus and its biodiversity.
Wilson also brought groups like the Tree Stewards, Tree Fredericksburg, The Sierra Club and others onto campus to help protect the natural environment.
Recently, the Tree Stewards, which include volunteers led by UMW's own Kevin Bartram, documented 535 trees in 52 zones of campus.
Over the past two years Wilson has collaborated with Professor of Biology Alan Griffith on an experiential learning project that uses geographic information service mapping tools and software to create an online map of the school's trees.
And UMW has twice been officially designated a Tree Campus by the Arbor Day Foundation under her leadership.
For accolades like that, she praised her staff, including Blair for their advocacy and knowledge.
"I get a lot of attention but it's really them that make UMW special," she said. "A university is a special place to work. I have this huge family here."
Wilson decided to retire after her husband, Harold Williams, retired as building services manager at UMW.
She also said the recent death of her father has changed her perspective. She wants to spend more time with her husband and their daughter, Hannah Sky Wilson.
Wiltenmuth said while they are hiring a new director, "We're not going to find another Joni. It's not so much filling her shoes as finding another pair of shoes."
"We will be seeing the effects of her knowledge and care for years to come," he said. "Over the passing of time, we will become cognizant of things she has touched."