Sudderth plants, not paints,
but the campus
is his canvas
Tom Sudderth’s official title is landscape installation
supervisor, but he has been likened by some as a painter who uses this campus
as a canvas, and the colors of nature as his palette.
Sudderth has too much Southern humility to take such a fancy
notion to heart, yet he is grateful that people think so highly of him –
highly enough to include that description in nominating him for the C. Knox
Massey Distinguished Service Award that he won this past spring.
“I became a fan of Carolina in 1957 when I was 8 years old,
sitting on a little stool in my daddy’s den, watching the national championship
game that went into triple overtime,” Sudderth said. “I remember when they won,
I fell off the stool.”
When Chancellor Holden Thorp called to tell Sudderth he had
won a Massey, he was so excited he could have fallen off the stool again, if he
still had it.
“When I read the list of people who have won this award,
it’s humbling to be a part of it,” Sudderth said.
He has been a part of Carolina since he began work here in
August 1984 – after his mother-in-law, a librarian in Hamlet, saw a
classified ad in The News & Observer for a job opening.
At the time, Sudderth was working as an urban landscaper for
the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the city where he had worked
since graduating from the University of Georgia with a forestry degree in 1972.
Sudderth took the UNC job that was advertised and has never
found another one that could tempt him to leave.
He traces the path that led him into this line of work to
the green thumb of his grandmother, who would always invite him out to work in
her yard in Greensboro whenever Sudderth and his family came to visit.
“She was a natural,” Sudderth said. “She had no formal
training, but I think she could make a dead stick grow.
“I remember how she cut off a branch of forsythia and
scratched out a little bit of dirt to cover it. She said, ‘The next time you
come over here it will be rooted, and we’ll clip it off and you’ll have a plant
of yellow bell.’ I thought that was pretty neat. I still do.”
As for being compared to a painter, Sudderth said there are
similarities, but real differences, too – primarily because it takes
plants much longer to grow to maturity then it takes for paint to dry.
The ornamental grasses he chose for the planters on the
terraces on the east-end addition to Kenan Stadium are a case in point,
Look at them now, he said, and they look like evenly spaced
clumps of dull green.
But when Sudderth looks at them, he envisions what they will
look like two or three years from now. The Pink Muley Grass, for instance, will
boast cotton-candy pink puffs at the top of thin grass stalks standing 2- to
Then there is the Purple Love Grass that will grow as high
as two feet from the base with widely spreading culms, each one having three to
four alternate leaves.
The panicum virgatum, or “Dallas Blues,” a powder-blue
foliage that will grow as high as 5 feet, and in early fall – prime
football season – will be topped with stunning plumes of reddish purple.
“Going back to the idea of the campus as a canvas, in many
ways it is, but in one fundamental respect it is not because it is forever
changing,” Sudderth said. “What that means is that our work is never complete.”
Even after 27 years on the job, that suits Sudderth just
Grounds Maintenance Inspector Paul Rigsbee said Sudderth has
always been the go-to guy for planting and landscaping
“Tom’s knowledge in plant materials and site preparation and
dedication to detail has transformed our campus into a world-class leader and
magnified its beauty,” Rigsbee said. “When you see the beautiful plantings on
campus, think of Tom. He saw the vision first.”
Another employee who appreciates Sudderth’s work is Patricia
Langelier, who before moving to Facilities Services worked at the
School of Government, where Sudderth designed an enclosed garden in honor of
Gladys Coates and a landscaped courtyard dedicated to the memory of Nanette
Mengel. That courtyard
has been used as a kind of “exterior dining room” ever since, Langelier said.
“One of the project’s challenges was to develop a buffer
from the busy intersection of Country Club and South roads,” she said. “Tom
implemented an elegant and low-cost solution that has enabled students as well
as visiting state and local officials to enjoy the dining area with a minimum
of traffic noise.”
Maybe that is the other flaw in the comparison of the campus
to a canvas: A campus is not complete without putting people in it.
“One of the most exciting things for our crew members to
do after they have finished a project is to go back and watch
people using it,” Sudderth said. “Seeing people enjoying the results of our
labor is the best way we can tell we are doing our jobs right.”