Life as… Kent Willocks the NCU Grounds Manager

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Your official title is Groundskeeper, but is there a personal term that you prefer to use?

I like the term groundskeeper, but also the word gardener! However, I changed my official title to Grounds Manager. I joined the Professional Grounds Management Society and am trying to use their terminology to raise the standards of this institution, to help NCU match more of a national standard and to make it as beautiful as a campus as it can be.

How did you discover your calling and what circumstances led you to become a part of NCU’s community?

In the short run, I’ve stumbled into it by accident. God kept putting me in places in my life. I started out as a child, doing gardening for neighbors and hating it. Later in life, when my art degree didn’t pan out in providing income for my wife and kids, I went with what I knew. I had the opportunity to buy a landscape business and I pursued that for fifteen years. Eventually I sold the business and thought, “Great, I never have to do this again!”

I tried to be an artist, but discovered that God had this for me and it is an art. When my friend first told me about this job opening at NCU ten years ago, I just knew it was God’s call and felt very strongly from the first moment that this would be a joyful place to be and part of what God wanted me to do; it has been confirmed for as long as I’ve been here.

You originally wanted to become an artist?

Well, I was imitating my brother when I was in high school. I took classes that he took because he was cool and I wasn’t! [Laughs] It was interesting. In my high school ceramics class, I tried a little project that was weird. I made a little cube-shaped box with ears on the sides and a little nose on the front and stuffed it full of foam rubber and it had little shoes on the bottom of it. My art teacher looked at it and said it reminded him of this sculptor, Marisol.

It was the first time that it clicked in me that I wasn’t just doodling, that there was a serious thing called being an artist and it opened my eyes to the idea that I could do this, legitimately. I had studied drama and stage design in college, but quickly realized it wasn’t a part of my world and started to do ceramics and sculpture instead.

Somewhere along the way, I became a Christian and received confirmation from my dad that being an artist was a pursuit that God had always had for me, even before I became a Christian.

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What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job and how does it correspond to your faith?

The most enjoyable aspect to me–besides being able to work outdoors and not be cooped up at my desk for forty hours a week–is the creative opportunities. For instance, whether I get to design a project that gets built or arrange flower beds with plantings. However, what gives me the most peace is pruning. When I’m doing particular kinds of pruning or I get to be selective in studying a plant and training it over the course of years to be something special, rather than something that someone came over with a pair of shears and whacked… that gives me more joy and satisfaction at the end of the day than anything else that I do.

We have to acknowledge that God is a creative God and He created nature first! [Laughs]

He created this incredible variety in the world and is still creating and sustaining it. He didn’t just wind up the clock and let it go, He’s making it happen and invites us to participate in it and to share in His creativity. He invites us to augment the beauty of nature, whether that is through pruning plants or working with sculptures–all through creativity. The fact that He invited us finite creatures into this world and invites us to use our creative skills, just as he brought to bear in the initial creation, blows me away.

What does a typical day in the life of Kent Willocks look like?

No, you don’t want to hear about that–that’s the drudgery part! [Laughs] As much joy as I find in my work, I’m still a human being. Getting up in the morning is hard. Being sixty years old, I’m learning what it means to be sixty years old, especially in the past few weeks. In terms of headaches and backaches, I get up in the morning and say, “Am I really going to go to work today?” And I do! I try to do my daily Bible reading and then head off to work.

I check my email and do some desk work for a half hour to an hour and then find something meaningful on my really long project list to attack. It usually involves long conversations, working with my employees, supervising people and then getting out and completing some creative work on the grounds. Some of it is drudgery though, like raking leaves.

You can’t really have creative liberty through raking leaves, right?

That’s an interesting point. I actually view creative liberty with all of it, because even if it’s raking leaves, you have a choice about how you do it. Even though raking is drudgery at times, the creativity comes in learning how to use a tool well and in learning how to make a plant bed look right when it is done.

One thing I learned from ceramics is that “the edge defines the shape.” I always drill this into my employees. Even if you’re raking a bed, the way you leave that edge clean and precise is what tells everybody that you did a good job. The bed can look as clean as possible, but if the edges are littered up and messy, nobody will notice the clean bed. There is creativity and skill involved even in the most mundane of tasks!

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Outside of being a groundskeeper, what other interests do you have? Do you have any hobbies or anything you enjoy doing outside of work?

Besides my obvious interest in the arts, my wife and I have bought a fixer-upper house about last year. We wanted to downsize and I’ve spent the last fifteen months trying to remodel it. It’s creative and you could call it a hobby, but it’s a horrible demand on my life. I’m ready to be done.

I’m finding as I get older, I am much more interested in theology and philosophy now than when I was young. Those classes I took in college bored me to tears and now I wish I knew what I was supposed to have learned back then. However, I’m very blessed to have a pastor and his wife who both have advanced degrees in philosophy and church history and are able to help me understand the history of the Christian faith and to know who we are as Christians today, it’s very important.

How did you learn so much about plants and landscaping? Did you ever take classes about botany?

I’ve always viewed my profession as a lifelong education, there are endless amount to learn and know. I’ve been committed to the idea that if there something I need to know along I way, I will discover it. I would do the research I could to perform tasks right–it’s endlessly fascinating! With that said, when I was in art school, I took a lot of elective courses in the natural sciences and most of my best buddies were forestry students.

My work study in college was in the biology apartment, in the greenhouses. It’s always been something I’ve had an affinity for and didn’t know at the time that the Lord would use all of those things to integrate into the call that He has given me, but they work together for good as it says in Romans 8:28:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

This next question is purely facetious: Is it true that you don’t like students walking on your grass?

No, it’s not true at all! [Laughs] My little “please don’t walk on the grass/use the sidewalk” signs often confuse people. I need to clarify that I’m not trying to get people to stay off the grass, what I’m trying to do is get people to think about where they walk.

When they walk from the door of Burke Griffeth across to the Goodrich Admin building–on the grass five times a day–and then another hundred and fifty of them do the same thing, that whole trail of grass they walk on turns silver. In the shade of the BG building, it turns into a mud hole over a period of a few months. It kills that grass and it makes it easier for people to track mud inside.

I want students to enjoy the lawn. As long as they don’t walk on the grass on the exact same path over and over again, then more power to them! They can even use the whole lawn to walk on if that’s what they want. My main concern is over the action of when the same path on the same area of grass gets used repeatedly–that is when the grass dies and becomes a mess!

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