Sustaining Life

Groundskeeper Andrew Stanley sees it as his duty to maintain the life on Collegiate’s campus. 
Don’t get groundskeeper Andrew Stanley started on dirt. “There’s way more science behind the growing of things than people generally realize,” he says. “For a seed to become a flower and a flower to become another set of seeds, many different things have to interact with the right plant. You have to know what’s going on underneath the soil — the microorganisms that are interacting with root systems, the sturdiness of the plant, the pollination.” He speaks gently, thoughtfully, as if his words are gusts of wind slowly winding over the ground he tends. “Certainly a lot has to happen for things to work and for anything to grow.” 

Luckily, Stanley, who started working at Collegiate alongside horticulturist Robyn Hartley five years ago, is largely responsible for how those things work. A 2012 Randolph-Macon College graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he’s been working in gardens since he was a boy, when, at 12 years old, he walked over to his grandmother’s house and began looking after her cantaloupes. “I was born and raised in Ashland and basically grew up outside,” he says. “It’s where I feel most comfortable, most at home.” 

That same summer Stanley’s grandmother passed away, and he would walk daily to her backyard, helping maintain the life of her garden she left behind. Yielding her cantaloupes, he felt in his hands a life sustained and unbroken, something in her legacy he helped continue. 

“At the end of that summer, we had a big family gathering,” Stanley recalls. “So while my grandmother was no longer around, I was still able to harvest the things from her garden that she grew and then I grew for her. It was a very meaningful harvest for me, a kind of passing of the torch. That’s generally where my passion for being in the dirt, my hands in the dirt, comes from. 

“And so when I’m gardening, I’m not only growing something and helping the earth, but I’m hopefully growing something that can give back to a community either in nutrients or beauty.” 

On Collegiate’s grounds, coleus unpack their leafy heads, silk trees lend a pink shade, chrysanthemums’ golden suds froth in pots. Stanley drives around in his golf cart, tending to it all. “The School is filled with different types of soil with different pH levels,” he explains. Bending to the dirt, he senses the slow, silent gathering of life beneath the surface, within the dark crumbly crust. 

Walking North Mooreland Road, he gets a quiet, humble satisfaction from watching students enjoy class outdoors or taking a break within the Lower School garden. His pleasure comes, as it always has, from watching people take joy in what he grows. He gives something to the world by turning and mending soil. 

When the pH of soil is low, you get something called nutrient lockout, which prevents microorganisms from breaking down nutrients to the point where plants can utilize it. During Stanley’s first year at Collegiate, in 2018, he noticed the poor quality of soil surrounding a 50-foot-tall willow oak located at the northeast end of the Grover Jones Field and Jim Hickey Track. The soil’s pH was low and bone dry around the tree, which is dedicated to Sam Jarman, who died in an automobile accident in 1981 when he was a Freshman at Collegiate. Stanley began dutifully trimming weeds, applying compost and topsoil. 

Conditions improved. And then, one day, when he was working on Sam’s tree, Sam’s father Larry came by on a walk. The two talked, Larry near tears. “I don’t need recognition, and I don’t want it,” Stanley says. “But to help somebody like Mr. Jarman with a space and a tree that truly means something to him, then that’s enough. And that day, like so many other places on campus, that became my project, my duty.” 

Of equal importance to Stanley is education. When he’s making his rounds at Collegiate, students will often stop him to ask what he’s doing. These are what he calls learning’s “organic moments,” the natural chances to offer insight. “I get pretty excited about those moments,” he says. “I see those as great opportunities to break down something complex in a way that young students can understand.” One student recently asked him how plants survive. “I’m big on analogies,” he told the student, “and plants and people are not all that different. We survive with only the basics — food, water and a place to drop our roots, a place to call home. We thrive when our foundation is fertile and healthy, when we’re eating properly.” The simplicity, this moment of connection, where a student, through Stanley’s teaching, can feel more connected with the world, is another form of growth. 

Back at his home in Bumpass, he raises chickens on his farm. Just as they’re about to hatch, Stanley will bring them to Collegiate’s campus, where Junior Kindergartners will watch them hatch as part of their unit on the life cycles of plants and animals. Students supervise the egg-hatching process and then observe and care for the chicks for a short while before giving them back to Stanley. “What I’m hoping they realize through all of this is the intricacies involved in the lives of plants and animals,” Stanley says. “Helping something grow is so much more than just putting a seed in a cup of dirt and growing something out of it, or, suddenly an egg hatches and you have a chicken. There’s a lot of small, small happenings that must take place in order for a seed to germinate. And I think that promotes curiosity and insight.”