Take a walk across campus with Ragnar Moen and ask him about the trees of Elmhurst College. It is a little like asking a proud parent to brag about his kids. The tales of amazing growth and surpassing vigor come pouring out.
Moen can tell lots of stories about the trees of Elmhurst. He planted many of them--hundreds, in fact, over thirty-five years as the College's head groundskeeper. Moen will point them out as you walk, supplying a name for every specimen. Redbud, sweetgum, weeping English oak. With each name comes a proud parent's story. Cutleaf beech, ponderosa pine, ironwood. With each name comes the familiar expressions of amazement at having nurtured something, having watched it grow, having seen it surpass even your fondest hopes.
Here is a dawn redwood nursed from a seedling. There is a transplanted tulip tree single-handedly wrestled into place with the help of an antique farm tractor. Up ahead is a sweetgum that finally earned a place on stage after five years in the campus nursery. "They are like your children in a way," Moen tells you. "You can remember when they were so small, and now you look at them and they've grown so much."
They've grown so much, and become such a familiar part of the campus landscape, that it is hard to imagine Elmhurst without its trees. In the first gorgeous days of spring, classes move outside to learn beneath budding crabapples. In the fall, old friends meet on paths blanketed with pine needles and maple leaves. This seems like the natural order of things, the way things should be on a college campus. And after all, if your name is Elmhurst, you had better have some pretty nice trees.
But it was not always this way. In the 1960s, many of the grand old trees that gave Elmhurst its name were diseased and dying. The campus landscape looked forlorn.
That's when an Elmhurst landscape architect named Herbert Licht began developing a new vision for the campus. He pictured new trees, hundreds of them, lining the paths and framing the stately brick buildings. And the selection would not be confined to the usual suspects of campus design, the elms and oaks and lindens. Licht had in mind a more varied and exotic display of plant life. He envisioned the campus as an arboretum, a living museum of trees.
Licht was persuasive. In 1966, the College established a campus arboretum. It began with about 65 varieties of trees and shrubs. Licht collected and donated many of the first new trees. Later dozens of alumni, faculty, and staff contributed to the collection's growth. Today, the campus is home to nearly 800 trees with more than 120 different species and numerous shrubs and perennials.
In the arboretum's first year, the College hired Ragnar Moen as its first groundskeeper. Among the first trees Moen planted on campus was a shumard oak, one of five he bought from a nursery in Michigan and carted back to campus in his station wagon. He planted it just north of Memorial Hall; it was just a skinny sapling then.
Thirty-eight years later, Moen can stand under the tree and look up and see how his sapling has grown. He can make a small circle with his muscular hands to show a visitor how puny the tree was when he planted it. Now a plaque sits in the shade of the mature oak. It reads: "Planted by Ragnar Moen in 1966. Ragnar, with his knowledge and 34 years in developing and beautifying the grounds and extending the plant collection, made this fine campus what it is today." The plaque was placed there not long ago by Herbert Licht.
Nowhere is the transformation of the grounds more noticeable than on the eastern edge of campus, between the Founders Gate and the Frick Center. In 1966, that gate opened onto a parking lot. Now the parking lot is long gone, replaced by a grove of trees, some of the most distinctive on campus. A twisted, ancient-looking Austrian pine flanks Old Main. A tulip originally planted by faculty in honor of Dr. Karl H. Carlson, presides over the plaza east of the Frick Center. Working by himself, Moen moved the tulip from its former site in 1969 to make way for the construction of the Buehler Library.
East of Old Main is Moen's personal favorite. It is a weeping European beech, its branches seemingly dragged toward the ground by some great weight. Somehow the tree manages to look at once melancholy and comical. "It's such a character," says Moen. "I don't think so much of the trees that stand straight up. Give me a little character in a tree. This is a perfect specimen."
Across campus, just north of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, is a place of even greater meaning to Moen. Enclosed by hedges, it is a quiet garden with a small bench that invites contemplation. In the center of the garden stands a Norway maple, planted in memory of Moen's son, Haakon. Haakon was born in Norway in 1959 and came to the United States with his family when he was two. As a young man, Haakon worked on his father's grounds. In 1985, he died in a car accident. A plaque reads, "In loving memory of Haakon Moen, 1959-1985. Remember me with smiles and laughter because that is the way I will remember you."
When Ragnar Moen came to the United States in 1961, he had no experience as a plantsman. Relatives landed him a job with a landscape contractor in Glenview, and within a year, he was a foreman. "I learned on the job," he remembers.
In his first years at Elmhurst, Moen alone tended the grounds. He never had a shortage of work. Spring was especially busy, and therefore the groundskeeper's favorite time of year. Between the reseeding, raking, mulching, plant-ing of annuals, and preparing the Mall for graduation, Moen barely had time to notice the growing beauty of the campus, with its new magnolias, redbuds, and vibernums all in bloom.
Winter brought its own trials, most notably snow removal. In the whiteout winter of 1979, he set up a cot in the basement of the Union and spent a few nights there. This part of the job became less palatable to Moen as the years went by. "When I got older, it got a little harder for me to get out of bed at two in the morning to plow," he says.
While the work could be back breaking, it never failed to provide a sense of satisfaction. "The College would do surveys of students and how they felt about the place, and the students almost always mentioned how nice the campus looked," Moen says. "That makes you feel good."
Even in retirement, walking the campus with his visitor, Moen kept running into faculty and staff who tell him how much they appreciate going to work in a such a leafy setting. Some wanted to nominate their own favorite parts of campus. The allee of magnolias in front of the Schaible Science Center, a blizzard of white flowers in the spring. Or the ancient, towering American elm alongside Memorial Hall. Or the oaks south of the Mall.
To walk across campus with Ragnar Moen is to be reminded why we treasure trees on college campuses. After all, trees are hardly necessary to the mission of a modern college. Professors could teach their classes without trees; students could still find their way to the library. But trees are an emblem of higher purpose, a reminder that education is really about nurturing. That skinny shumard oak that Moen pulled from the back of his station wagon in 1966 and planted in front of Memorial Hall grew into a mature and mighty tree. That's a transformation every bit as miraculous as the one that the College hopes to affect in its students.
Or, as Ragnar Moen puts it more modestly: "This turned out to be an awfully nice campus, didn't it?"