A Rewarding Return
Friday, December 17, 2021
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When a young Sequoyah County boy stepped onto Oklahoma State University’s campus for the first time with his fellow 4-H’ers, he never expected to return many years later to transform all that surrounded him.
Steve Dobbs, OSU director of landscape services, has been beautifying the Stillwater campus — almost 900 acres — for nearly 12 years.
“I found my niche and my passion, so I have been very pleased with the path I chose,” Dobbs said. “I never envisioned what it has turned out to be since then.”
Growing up in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, Dobbs was involved on his family’s ranch and local 4-H club where he discovered an interest in plants and gardening. His connections and experiences within 4-H led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at OSU in 1981.
During an undergraduate internship with OSU Extension, Dobbs worked with the county office in Claremore, Oklahoma, on various outdoor projects and became a resource for the public’s questions, Dobbs said.
“I have always thrived on being creative and on how to educate and teach people,” Dobbs said.
As the intern, he wrote weekly columns and taught classes about gardening. He eventually found a way to tie together horticulture and education with his creative nature, Dobbs said.
After graduation, Dobbs accepted a job with OSU Extension as an agriculture/horticulture agent in Muskogee County to answer consumer horticulture questions, work with 4-H’ers, present agricultural programs, and start the county’s first Master Gardener Program, he said.
The Master Gardener Program is a national program Dobbs was involved with in locations across Oklahoma. Within this program, Dobbs led volunteers through demonstration gardens to gain knowledge and experience of working in the outdoors, he said.
Three years later, Dobbs began his master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Arkansas. Upon graduation in 1986, Dobbs took a job in Pensacola, Florida, where he hosted gardening television shows, wrote weekly columns and collaborated with the Master Gardener Program in the state, he said.
Later, Dobbs was promoted to an administrative role in southern Florida for a year and a half before returning to OSU Extension in the early 1990s as the state Extension consumer horticulture specialist.
“Never again in my wildest dreams would I have expected to be back at OSU,” Dobbs said.
In this position, Dobbs coordinated the Oklahoma Master Gardener Program with other state specialists and was a resource for OSU Extension horticulture educators across the state for five years. In addition, he hosted the “Oklahoma Gardening” TV show from 1990 to 1995.
This role allowed him to combine education and entertainment through creative media by sharing timely gardening segments with gardening enthusiasts and the horticulture industry, Dobbs said.
Dobbs then made a career shift to help his mother run their family’s ranch after his father’s death, he said.
During this time, he built his own greenhouse business and began writing gardening books, such as the “Oklahoma Gardening Guide.”
A few years later, Dobbs said he took a job at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith with ground maintenance and was later promoted to an administrative role. Then, a new opportunity would plant him, his wife and kids where his roots run deep.
“It is really interesting how life works,” Dobbs said. “God has orchestrated my life, and all the doors opened and everything came together to prepare me for this bigger challenge.”
In 2010, Dobbs accepted the director of landscape services position at OSU and worked tirelessly with former OSU President Burns Hargis and other administrators to bring life to their vision of beautifying the Stillwater campus, he said.
After many updates in the OSU Landscape Master Plan, focus on expanding irrigation and standardizing elements began in 2011, Dobbs said. Transforming the grounds has been an ongoing process ever since then.
“It has been a great decade at OSU because of student growth, campus beautification, new buildings and sports,” Dobbs said. “It has been fun to be a part of that, and the landscape services staff have worked hard to make campus beautification happen.”
Tyler Troppman, a horticulturist for OSU Facilities Management Landscape Services, said Dobbs has been a huge help in guiding him through his role on campus. Troppman said he enjoys picking Dobbs’ brain about plants and horticulture trends.
“Dobbs is cutting edge when it comes to plants and what we use in our gardens,” Troppman said. “He likes to have the newest, best and brightest for campus in all our plantings.”
One of Dobbs’ favorite projects was creating the Welcome Plaza in collaboration with staff, faculty and students.
“When people get out of the car, we want a ‘wow’ moment,” Dobbs said. “We want a garden that when they walk through, they know what OSU is all about.”
Extensive amounts of time and effort went into planning this garden area, Dobbs said. The OSU letters are strategically placed to be in the background of photos taken on the saddle, Dobbs said. The foal, named Immortal, represents students ready to change the world. The mare, named Proud, represents faculty, staff and alumni keeping a watchful eye on the foal trying to sprint ahead, Dobbs explained.
“You cannot get better OSU branding than going to that garden,” Dobbs said. “It’s a perfect example of using a space to relay a message and to connect with people. That is the garden’s whole purpose.”
Another project that means a lot to Dobbs is the Cowboy Family Tree near Theta Pond.
His vision for this project was to create an art piece recognizing the importance of trees on campus and those who donate to the planting and maintenance of OSU’s urban forest, Dobbs said.
“Steve looks and strives to always make the most out of all our spaces on campus,” said Nicholas Ouellette, OSU landscape design coordinator. “He is the mastermind when it comes to coming up with a layout and figuring out how to portray it.”
Dobbs said he constantly reminds his staff that they work every day to change the lives of students.
“We love to have student input,” Dobbs said. “That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we try to involve them in so many things.”
Many landscape projects were initiated by students, Dobbs said. When a student approaches him with an idea, he collaborates with them through the process of gaining funds, creating designs, and guiding conversations of maintenance, he said.
Ouellette said landscape services staff take student and faculty involvement seriously and work with them to piece their ideas together.
“I don’t think people realize how much the facilities management staff really does interact with students and try to gain understanding of what they want in a lot of projects,” Ouellette said. “Dobbs is willing to listen to anyone’s idea.”
Some student-initiated projects include the Orange Grove hammock area, the Christmas lights display and an upcoming remembrance garden honoring those lost in the Cowboy Family.
“The best thing about this job is working with the students and their enthusiasm,” Dobbs said. “Their ideas are creative.”
Dobbs emphasized the tremendous value and hard work the OSU facilities management landscape services staff offer to him and the campus. He credited them for how their teamwork helps make the campus what it looks like today.
“We’re the lucky ones to have him,” Ouellette said. “He really has a good ability to gain people’s respect and to get people devoted to come to work and accomplish tasks on campus.”
John Lee, landscape installation services assistant manager, followed Dobbs’ work for years leading up to applying to be on his team at OSU.
Lee said Dobbs’ friendly nature and ability to problem solve make him a special leader.
“Dobbs is always pushing the envelope of new and better plans,” Lee said. “When you have such talented people who can work together and can be on the same page, campus sure shows what that looks like.”
Ouellette said Dobbs puts the “big picture” ideas in the hands of staff to help make them come to life.
“There are so many people who admire Steve and admire what he does and stands for,” Ouellette said.
Dobbs works hard to direct and focus his team on moving forward and prioritizing projects that will make the most impact on campus, Lee said.
“The message still stays the same,” Dobbs said. “It is all about the students’ education and how those experiences here change their lives, hopefully for the better, and part of that is what we do because of their experiences outside."
Story By: Carli Eubank | Cowboy Journal