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Remembering a Saint Mary’s groundskeeper

Gwen O'Brien | Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Sunday, Nov. 10, the Saint Mary’s College family lost a member of its family. John Stephenson, 62, suffered a massive stroke last Wednesday and did not recover. He worked at the College for 18 years as a groundskeeper. Students may have known his face as they shuffled to class on the sidewalks that he cleared of snow. Maybe they even shared a few words as he paused from his work, hands resting on the top of his rake, to chat about the weather, the squirrels or the gardens. Whether or not students would recognize John, they should know his work helped make Saint Mary’s the tranquil and scenic place it is, a backdrop that helps them achieve aesthetic appreciation at the same time they seek intellectual the “vigor, religious sensibility and social responsibility” described in the College’s mission statement.

I didn’t know John well. He was a quiet man, and I’m always running from here to there. But sometimes we would make small talk about the beauty of the campus grounds, the gardens and the flowerbeds he so skillfully tended. I feel like a got a glimpse into his soul a couple of years ago when he adopted a family during the Twelve Days of Christmas, an annual campus project that provides holiday gifts and necessities to area families in need. Perhaps a whole department or office adopts a family, but John quietly purchased a pile of toys and other items on his own. I happened to find out about it as I worked with a news station covering Twelve Days.

There are others who knew him much better. Mark Kubacki, director of grounds, said one of John’s favorite tasks was tending the lovely gardens of Riedinger House. He also took great pride in having the sidewalks shoveled for the students and the softball and soccer fields ready for the student-athletes.

Julie Schroeder-Biek, director of athletics, notes that while visiting teams may not be impressed with Angela Athletic Facility, they have only good things to say about the athletic fields.

“It is uncommon if we don’t hear the opposing coach or players say that we have the best soccer field or softball diamond in the league” he said. “These spaces have received special attention from our grounds crew. John Stephenson, in particular, made sure our fields were laid out to regulation, the lines were straight and the infield had been drained and there were no puddles in the base path.

John always went above and beyond his job description of just keeping the fields – he cared for the fields because he cared for our coaches and athletes who would be using them. He knew our home schedule. If we had a softball game on a Sunday and it had rained overnight, John came in and did everything he could to make sure our field was ready to go for the team. As an athlete himself, he knew how important it was to have safe fields and outdoor facilities we could be proud of.”

Marilyn Rajski, director of building services, said fall was a favorite time of the year for John, whom she says was her “best bud” and golf partner.

“He enjoyed planting the thousands of tulip bulbs this time of year for spring beauty,” she said. “He could tell you the types of tulips he planted and exact locations. He never got upset when the rabbits or chipmunks would disrupt the tulip beds. He would say, ‘It is what it is. Nature!'”

Marilyn noted, “John didn’t like to be in the spotlight. He was a private man. He was profound in saying, ‘One doesn’t need to bolster about themselves to draw attention. Just do your work and conduct yourself in such a way that others see the outcome and the pride it took to get the end results. Be proud of yourself.'”

We hope he excuses the attention, but we couldn’t just let him go without saying thank you to John.

Gwen O’Brien   
director of Media Relations
Saint Mary’s College
Nov. 14