The Cultivator

Officially, Marlene Williams’ job is a crew leader of the College’s campus grounds department. Really, though, she’s an artist.

When you walk through campus, you can’t miss Marlene Williams’ masterpieces. There are all the hanging baskets suspended above piazzas, popping with petunias. There are the black pots sitting along Cougar Mall, dripping with ivy and assorted colors of calibrachoa, or Million Bells. There are the two large planters standing behind Addlestone Library, each holding a dwarf palmetto and teeming with pansies, snapdragons and dianthus. These are just a few of the more than 150 flower containers that Williams plants and maintains around the College.

One day this spring, the affable Williams stood beneath the shade of an oak tree off Coming Street, preparing to plant a container destined for a shady area of the President’s Garden.

“They call it potting soil, but it’s dirt to me,” says Williams as she fills the container bottom.

She next adds fertilizer.

“It’s like mixing up a nice little cake,” says Williams, stirring the soil with her hands.

Then comes the fun part: picking the plants. Williams makes three depressions in the soil before sinking three eye-catching coleus plants into the container. One coleus is handsomely blood- and copper-colored. The other two are maroon and green.

“It grows big, it spreads,” she says of the plant. “I just like it.”

Three waxy, red-flowered begonias come next, followed by yellow torenia, which blooms well in shade.

“I like a burst of colors. I like light, not darkness,” she notes.

Williams is careful not to crowd the pot or pack the soil, leaving room for young plants to grow. After planting a few more flowers, she adds the final touch before watering: non-toxic slug poison.

“They got to eat,” she concedes. “I just don’t want them to eat my work.”

Eliminating a slug is about as mean as the mild-mannered Williams gets. She’s all about harmony and understanding.

“My main objective in life is to love people, respect people and have them love me,” says Williams. “I try to keep a clean heart and don’t wish harm on anyone.”

Williams was born on James Island and moved to New York City with her mother when she was 6 years old. About four years later, after returning to South Carolina, her mother passed away from a brain tumor. Williams then moved back and forth between older siblings’ households in South Carolina and New York before graduating from James Island High School, where she was a star on the basketball and track and field teams.

She moved away to Charlotte for college, desiring independence, then moved back home when she found out independence wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. She finished her education at Trident Technical College and then had careers in ship welding and port operations. For 15 years, she ran her own ice cream truck business.

Meanwhile, she’s raised three children: two boys and a girl. Williams’ older kids live in South Carolina, but her baby boy, Husain, is up in New York, singing under the performance name Mello Deas.

“I ain’t braggin’, but he’s good,” says Williams. “I just wish and pray every day that someone will listen and see how good he is.”

One day, back around 1997, Williams applied to the College’s grounds department, despite having no landscaping experience. She was hired, but was quickly warned that she’d receive no pity on account of her gender.

“You come here on a man’s job, you’re going to do a man’s job,” one co-worker told her when she started.

Indeed, Williams was sent to cut grass and weed-whack, no matter the often hot and humid Charleston climate. These days she still works hard, patrolling campus with the rest of the grounds crew during their 7 a.m. “police call,” in which they pick up trash and cigarette butts. After that, the crew meets and divvies up assignments for the day. In May, the grounds crew works particularly hard to make the campus beautiful for two big events: A Charleston Affair and the spring commencement ceremonies, which are held on subsequent weekends.

Walking through campus, Williams tidies up pots she planted months earlier. Plants inevitably get leggy or start to wither when the weather changes, requiring their removal. Williams pulls them from the pots unceremoniously.

On a campus as heavily landscaped as the College, there’s always more to do. Things look good, but they could always look better, at least according to the exacting eyes of the grounds crew. When work is over each day, the 60-year-old Williams is tired.

“It’s a lot of lifting and bending. You’re putting a lot of stress on your body, really,” she says. “But you just keep on plucking because you know you gotta do it. That’s life.”

Williams is not a complainer. She’s had ups and downs in life, but she does not whine, does not make excuses. When other people come to her to talk in confidence, she listens and sympathizes, but also reminds them that obstacles are things to be overcome.

“Lift your head up,” she says. “Somebody has it worse than you.”

Looking ahead, Williams hopes to build her own home on family land on James Island.

“That would be a big goal for me. That would be a blessing,” she says. “I think I’m going to get it one day. I don’t know how or when, but it will happen. It will definitely happen.”

In the meantime, Williams communes five days a week with flowers and shrubs, adding bursts of color to a campus that everyone can enjoy and admire.

“I don’t know if they feel my spirit or not,” she says of her leafy companions, “but I feel theirs.”

– Jason Ryan

Read more stories about essential campus employees in the College of Charleston Magazine