A Grounded Education

Everyone expects to learn something at the College. But one alumnus found that some of the most valuable lessons aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom – and aren’t necessarily taught by faculty.

by Glenn Shuler ’77

When I proudly walked across the Cistern in a white dinner jacket and received my diploma on May 8, 1977, I thought my education at the College was over. When I returned to the Cistern Yard less than 24 hours later – this time in jeans and a T-shirt – I promptly realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d taken a job working with the College’s Grounds Crew for the summer – and I had a lot to learn!

I was a little nervous on that first day. But manual labor has a way of doing away with the nonsense of nerves, and any first-day jitters I had wore off quickly. I met with the supervisor, signed the necessary paperwork and got a new ID before heading to the Cistern Yard to meet my coworkers and help them with the task of rolling up and removing the sod so that Spoleto Festival, USA could come in and build a stage. One guy was cutting the sod into strips; the rest of us were working the sod into rolls small enough to be handled. We then stacked them on the edge of the Cistern, where the remaining crew member loaded it all into a couple of trailers.

That crew member impressed me first. He was a middle-aged Army retiree with a stocky build, and his biceps were about the size of my thighs. Everyone called him Big Daddy. That morning, I saw how Big Daddy could work: Bend over, pick up a roll of sod, walk a few steps, bend over again and stack the sod neatly in the trailer. Repeat.

Illustration by Timothy Banks

Wow! I thought. The guy never gets tired. He’s a machine!

Big Daddy’s character was just as purposeful and attentive as his work – and he was always glad to help anyone who needed it: like the time I was having trouble starting a Weed Eater. I’d pulled the starter cord over a dozen times when Big Daddy tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, let me see that thing for a minute,” he said, taking it from me and briefly checking it out. “Yep, you flooded it. Cut the choke off and pull it ’til it sounds like it wants to crank.”

I obeyed.

“Now,” he said when the motor turned over, “set the choke at about half way and try it.”

Again I obeyed, and with two more pulls, it fired up.

He smiled and yelled above the noise of the engine: “Remember, half way on the choke for most of these Weed Eaters. They’re kinda like women – they’re fine most of the time, but sometimes can frustrate the hell out of you!”

Big Daddy became my go-to man whenever I needed help. He had the patience to instruct me without making me feel stupid.

Even so, there was no denying that I was out of my element. I had entered a different world – one lunch break in our equipment room near the Sottile House was all it took for me to know that. These guys did not care about class schedules, grades and intramural sports. They were hardworking men, there to do a good job and earn their paycheck for the week.

Larry, who was just 24, was the closest to me in age. He had spent a few years in New York City – and he loved to talk about it.

“Dude – when I was in New York, I had me a Dodge Charger,” he told me my first day on the job. “Metallic blue, jacked up a little, loud muffler and a killer sound system. It looked good and sounded better. It was the ticket.”

I noticed some of the other guys’ eyes rolling.

“Man, that thing was a chick magnet, too,” he continued.

But, before he could get too far into his soliloquy, Joe broke in: “Larry, why don’t you shut up? Glenn don’t wanna hear none of your crap about New York.”

“Yeah,” Big Daddy chimed in, “for all we know, you mighta had you a damn Pinto at best!”

“And it was probably primer gray,” Joe smirked.

The rest of the fellows just chuckled.

Larry was not dissuaded by any of their rebukes, though. I’m sure I heard at least one new story about his time in New York every time I worked with him.

The most famous (read: most talked about) of our group was Biddy. Biddy was on vacation when I started, so I didn’t get to meet him that first week. But when he got back, he walked over to me in our equipment room and asked, “Whah ya nay-um?”

I said, “Glenn.”

“Glenn,” he replied rapidly. “Good t’meechah, Glenn. M’nay-um Eddie Gree-un. But eb-body call me Biddy.”

He had that old-time, downtown Charleston/Lowcountry/Gullah dialect that was music to my ears, whether I could understand it or not. At first I struggled to understand much of what Biddy and the rest of the guys were saying when they talked among themselves, but after a week of lunch breaks, I started to catch on. The language barrier – and culture barrier – became less and less pronounced.

The light-hearted teasing and joking among the group was almost incessant – and eventually I felt comfortable enough to join some of the banter. I also started becoming the brunt of some of their jokes – like the time Joe asked me, “So, Glenn, ummm … you said you got your degree in what?”

“I got a B.S. in biology.”

“B.S.?” he said with a smile. “So you had to go to college to get a degree in bullsh**? You could’ve come down here and had lunch with us every day and got that degree!”

“Yeah,” Biddy joined in, “we could teach ya ebbyting ya need t’know ’bout dat.”

The guys laughed, and I agreed with them wholeheartedly. I knew then that I’d been accepted in the group.

As much as we ribbed one another and poked fun, the focus occasionally turned toward more thoughtful discussions – like the meaning of the modern metallic sculptures that had been installed all over campus for Spoleto.

“Day ain’t mean a ting tuh me,” Biddy said.

“It’s just some metal welded together,” Joe said. “My 10-year-old could do that.”

“No, no,” Big Daddy insisted. “The guy that put them together must have had some idea in his head when he did them, right?”

“The only thing that dude had in his head when he did that one by the library was some heavy drugs,” Larry snorted.

Another guy, Marshall, just smiled and said something indistinguishable.

I had the hardest time understanding Marshall. He smiled a lot, even when he talked, and he did not move his lips much because of this. I do not know why, but we were frequently paired together for the day’s tasks. I’m sure he tired of my asking him to repeat what he had just said, but he never seemed agitated with me. He just kept on smiling.

I smile, too, every time I think about those guys and that summer. I’m reminded of them often, thanks to a special souvenir: the grand live oak on our property in St. George, S.C., that I planted 35 years ago from a sapling that had sprouted below one of the oaks in the Cistern Yard.

As a 22-year-old who didn’t know where to begin the rest of his life, I had no idea that the job with the Grounds Crew would end up being one of my most valued life experiences. It put the cap on my four years at the College. I learned a lot from those caretakers of our beautiful campus. And, although I had the privilege of studying under some great teachers at the College – Professors Towell, Habarak, Pennington, Freeman and Hamilton are a few who come to mind – I would not consider my education complete without the members of the Grounds Crew.

I did well in every class I took that summer: weed pulling, sod laying and brick blowing. And, while I admit I only earned a C+ from Professor Biddy in old-time Charlestonese, the lessons I took away from those brief 90 days in 1977 were both profitable and enduring.

1 comment

  • I love it! Wonderful memories and real-life lessons from our beloved Cistern. And to have a tree with a pedigree! (class of ’97)

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