Grounds pro Russ Thorn, 31 years on the job, readies the campus for another school year

Malone University

Founded: 1892 by Walter and Emma Malone
Located: North Canton, Ohio
Service & Grounds Supervisor: Russell “Russ” Thorn
Grounds: Approximately 100 acres, one soccer field, one softball field, several intramural fields
Employees: 3 full time, 8 to 12 part-time student workers depending upon the season

Malone University is a private, Christian liberal arts university in Canton, Ohio. Affiliated with the Evangelical Friends (Religious Society of Friends), the university boasts about 2,000 undergrads and 500 graduate students. US News & World Report ranks it among the top universities in the Midwest. Walter and Emma Malone founded the school in Canton’s northern neighbor Cleveland in 1892 and named it Cleveland Bible College. Their goal was to train young people for inner-city ministry and social service in the Quaker tradition.

Since then much at the school has changed – although not its strong Christian tradition or values. In 1957, the college, in the path of the construction of I-90, moved to Canton where it was renamed to honor its founders. Canton is a city of about 73,000 that is probably best known as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Russ Malone joined the Malone University staff in March 1981 and now serves as the University’s Service & Grounds supervisor.

The university’s 23 buildings are situated on about 100 acres. Russell “Russ” Thorn, three full-time assistants and eight to 12 part-time student workers (depending on the season) care for the grounds. In addition to the common campus grounds with its many small patches of turfgrass and ornamental beds, they maintain one soccer field, one softball field and several intramural sports fields.

“The students work as many hours as their class work will allow them,” says Thorn, service and grounds supervisor. “Some of the students work three hours a week, some work 10 hours a week; it all depends upon their academic schedules.”

We met Thorn at the recent Ventrac International Dealer Meeting at Malone University. It was a mercifully cool Friday morning, hundred-degree heat having departed northeast Ohio for the U.S. mid-Atlantic just two days previously. The weather was perfect for trying out Ventrac’s new 4500 tractor. As is usually the case at such events, you meet dedicated landscape and grounds pros, such as Thorn who has been with Malone the past 31 years.

That particular day, he and his small summer grounds contingent were readying the campus for the return of students in mid-August. A group of three students worked nearby on a small patch of ornamentals near the entrance to one of the main buildings on the campus. College administrators have long since become aware of the importance of the appearance of their campus in attracting top students.

Thorn, a quiet, thoughtful person, says the university has been using student workers on the grounds department for years. They’re selected based on their need for financial assistance. His three full-time assistants train them, and much of the training is on the job. He says that most of the students work out just fine, but there are cases where the job is not a good fit for the student, he admits.

“They’re trained in just about everything that needs to be done with the grounds,” says Thorn. This includes putting down about 200 yards of mulch each season, not one of their favorite tasks.

To stretch the budget, Thorn’s crew uses a Ventrac 4200 tractor because the single unit can perform many different grounds jobs, depending on which attachment is used with it – mower deck, turf aerator, leaf blower, salt spreader, straight blades, etc.

“In addition to Ventrac we use Steiner tractors with attachments, including a 60-inch mowing deck, 5-foot power blade, leaf blower and aerator,” says Thorn, and the department relies heavily on its 1974 Ford tractor with front-end loader. Other grounds equipment includes STIHL blowers and trimmer, a Troy-Bilt tiller, Workhorse E-Z-Go, Simplicity tractor, Little Wonder gas hedge trimmer and leaf blower, KIFCO water reel, Snapper snow throwers, Giant-Vac truck mount leaf vac, Western and Boss snowplows, and Meyers salt spreaders.

The university hires an outside lawn care company to fertilize and manage weeds on the campus.

As it stands, Malone University could use more on-campus sports fields. That may eventually change as the NCAA Division II membership committee in late July informed the school that it has advanced to the provisional year of the NCAA membership process. The move signifies the Pioneer athletic department is on track to becoming a full-fledged NCAA Division II member by the 2013-14 academic year.

The school’s football team plays at 74-year-old Fawcett Stadium, which also hosts the annual NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame game, while Malone’s baseball team plays off campus, as well, at Thurman Munson Stadium, named after the former Major League baseball player Thurman Munson who grew up in Canton and was captain of the New York Yankees.

Thorn, over his three decades of service there, has seen and been a part of Malone’s growth from a small college to a university in 2008. Every year is different and the weather in northeast Ohio is usually the biggest challenge he faces.

“This summer has been one of the driest summers I have encountered since 1988 because you just can’t replace rain to keep athletic fields, lawns and ornamentals alive,” says Thorn. “All the additional challenges I have are obstacles that can be worked out through time management, staffing and equipment.”

He describes his many years at the university as both “a challenging and rewarding experience.”

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 28 years. Contact him at [email protected].