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Bob Shea retires after 4 decades with Amherst College facilities

  • Bob Shea drives by the Amherst College campus freshman quadrangle with a Gazette reporter on Monday, July 31, 2017, Shea's last day after 39 years with the college's Landscape and Grounds Department. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea pauses in the Yushien Japanese garden at Amherst College on Monday, the last day of his 39-year career with the college's landscape and grounds department. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea, of Hatfield, talks about his 39 years with the landscape and grounds department at Amherst College before he retired Monday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea talks about his 39 years with the Landscape and Grounds Department at Amherst College before retiring Monday, July 31, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea talks about his 39 years with the Landscape and Grounds Department at Amherst College before retiring Monday, July 31, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea takes a tour of the Amherst College campus with a Gazette reporter on Monday, July 31, 2017, Shea's last day after 39 years with the college's Landscape and Grounds Department. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bob Shea drives by the Amherst College campus freshman quadrangle on Monday, July 31, 2017, his last day after 39 years with the college's Landscape and Grounds Department. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@dustyc123
Monday, July 31, 2017

AMHERST — If there’s a man who might know every single tree on Amherst College’s campus, it’s Bob Shea, who on Tuesday will enjoy his first day of retirement after nearly 40 years at the college’s facilities department.

There are the small saplings planted last year that are still held up by stakes. There are the red pines near the tennis courts that have largely succumbed to disease and insect attacks. And there’s the majestic Camperdown elm that the college relocated with a crane in 2013 during renovations on Pratt Field.

Shea, 65, of Hatfield, helped plant 42 spruce trees near Pratt Field in the early 1980s, the 6-foot evergreens positioned to serve as a windbreak for the football spectators shivering in the fall winds that whipped up the hill.

“That part I really remember,” Shea said, reminiscing on Monday. “And it worked!”

Like those once-small trees that now tower over the west side of the field, a lot has changed since Shea started out as a groundskeeper for $4 an hour in 1978. Now the grounds and vehicle maintenance supervisor, Shea has a memory full of stories about the college’s history to carry into retirement.

He also has two new hips, some of the strain on them perhaps coming from years of mowing grass on the steep banks around campus, after which Shea felt like he was walking sideways for hours. Now, that same dangerous work is done by a remote-controlled robot, the days of chasing lawnmowers into the street now over.

Little reminders like those hills sit all over campus. Looking at the freshman quad, Shea remembered how his daughter Jennifer used to drop her dirty laundry into his parked car when she was studying political science at Amherst in the 1990s. When Jennifer played softball at the college, it was on a field that Shea himself built.

The softball field and his daughter are no longer there. Neither are the old wooden bleachers Shea and his crew would have to lug in and out of storage every year. His son Jeffrey is there, though; he’s a sergeant with the campus police.

“It was so labor-intensive years ago,” Shea said of the job while driving his white pickup truck through campus Monday, waving at colleagues and acquaintances as he detailed all of the work he and his crew have done over the years.

One does not have to look hard to see his department’s handiwork in and around every campus building. Shea suspects that around 40 buildings have been renovated or built during his time at Amherst, the attendant landscaping taking up a substantial part of his time.

Architects, Shea said, have a building and its landscaping perfectly designed in their mind’s eye. “But as soon as they leave, they forget about it and it’s up to you to maintain it,” he said.

It’s actually up to the facilities workers to keep up with a lot of the necessary work on campus: snow plowing, road salting, leaf removal, spring cleanup, summer work that comes with the construction season, hedge trimming and gardening.

Shea didn’t originally want to do all that work; he wanted to be a teacher. However, after he graduated from Central Connecticut State University there were no teaching jobs to be had. So Shea got a job doing pesticide fumigation for the farm bureau in Greenfield before soon landing at Amherst College.

Now, all that work occupies his mind and keeps him up at night. Shea is “old school,” so he makes extensive notes and lists of things to do by hand. Whoever invented sticky notes, he said, is “a winner in my book.” Even at home he keeps a pad of paper to jot down job-related thoughts.

“There’s a lot of stress in it,” he admitted.

Part of that stress is because the grounds are the first thing seen by visiting families and prospective students — or aso Shea jokingly refers to them, prospective buyers. In other words, it’s up to Shea and his crew to make a good first impression on every parent thinking about sending their child to Amherst, and on the high school seniors who imagine themselves treading across the picturesque campus.

Shea’s work might also be the last thing many Amherst students see on campus. His department, after all, is in charge of setting up 10,000 chairs and 300 tables for graduation. Those returning for reunion week also have Shea and company to thank for the seats they sit on.

“Luckily, I had a veteran crew,” Shea said of his decades on the job. Several colleagues — Warren Carey, Jim Thornton and Marlin Ball — were there even longer than Shea before they all retired in the past two years. With Shea leaving there has been a definite changing of the guard.

As for his own retirement, Shea has mixed feelings.

“It’s good and bad,” he said. “The bad part is just leaving here — all the memories.”

While he’s leaving those cherished memories and people behind, similar labor will only continue for Shea. With his extra time, he said he’ll finally have more than just weekends to catch up on work around the house. 

There are also the 700-odd Christmas trees that he and his son Jason, a landscaper himself, are raising to sell. And, of course, there are four grandchildren to spend time with.

Although he’ll be plenty busy, Shea still plans to come back to Amherst College to use some of the facilities and maybe to sharpen the blades on his own lawn mower.

“It’s like a second home here,” he said. “The college has been great to me.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.