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Hobart Award Winner Keeps Outdoor Fields Fit for Athletes

John Wilkinson
For more than 16 years, John Wilkinson has kept Davidson’s playing fields beautiful.

The recipient of this year's physical plant Hobart Award is a vital member of many of the college's 21 varsity sports teams, though he's never played for any of them. John Wilkinson, senior groundskeeper, is responsible for maintaining all 25 acres of the 100-acre main campus that are devoted to athletic fields.

The Hobart Award is presented annually to a member of the hourly physical plant staff in recognition of dedication, loyalty, spirit of cooperation, patience and mentoring. Facilities management director David Holthouser presented the award and its $750 prize to Wilkinson last month.

Wilkinson has worked at the college for the past 15 years, following 18 years as a Duke Power lineman. He appreciates his short daily commute, and doesn't at all miss the wet, freezing, stormy weather that commands power line workers to respond. He started at Davidson in general grounds maintenance, but was selected as athletic fields manager two years later.

He works under the conviction that the college's outdoor athletes deserve top-quality fields in order to play safely and perform at their best. But maintaining that standard requires a tremendous amount of work, as well as a thorough understanding of soil science.

The college's natural fields are all sown in Bermuda grass, a heat-loving species. But because the Bermuda grass goes dormant and brown in cold weather, fields are over-seeded in early fall with Rye grass that stays green through the playing season. The annual list of soil maintenance chores also includes irrigation, divot repair, fertilization, weed and pest control, aeration, trimming and edging–and seemingly constant mowing.

Wilkinson and his recently hired assistant J.R. Overcash log scores of miles on specialized mowing machines, keeping the athletic fields clipped to the college standard of three quarters of an inch. The varsity soccer field takes an hour to mow, and during the summer can require up to five clippings per week. Even the artificial grass football/lacrosse field, and the artificial field hockey field, need to be sprinkled and swept of leaves.

Thinking Ahead

Wilkinson enjoys keeping up with science of turf maintenance and regularly attends conferences of the state chapter of the national Sports Turf Managers Association to share ideas with peers and to see if new products could benefit Davidson. An example would be the line of new plant growth regulator products the college now uses. The regulators promote more active growth of grass roots and limit the growth of the exposed top part of the plant, so the field requires less frequent mowing.

Wilkinson said the most challenging aspect of his job is the constant necessity to think ahead. He has already drawn up a maintenance schedule in advance of the Atlantic 10 men's soccer tournament, which will be played at Davidson next November.

All the attention to grass at Davidson may seem like an indulgence. But it's far less a luxury here than in other sports venues. Wilkinson said the Carolina Panther playing field is mowed twice per day, and the San Diego Padres budget $100,000 per year to maintain a single three-acre field.

Looking Forward

A native of Rowan County, Wilkinson has lived in the same house his whole life. He purchased it from his parents, who built it in the late 1940s and operated it as a dairy farm. Wilkinson and his spouse of 33 years, Debi, currently raise chickens, honeybees and timber on the 63-acre spread. They also raised two sons there, and son Nathan now works in Davidson's building services department.

At age 60, Wilkinson can envision the day when he joins Debi in retirement. She spent 18 years as a classroom assistant in Rowan County school kindergartens. He would like to hunt deer more often, and he and Debi recently purchased an RV so they can more comfortably enjoy their favorite pastime–attending bluegrass festivals. He also looks forward to having more time to dote over this three-year-old granddaughter, Sadie Marie Wilkinson.

The Hobart Award at Davidson honors the memory of Frank Donald Hobart, supervisor of buildings and grounds from 1925-59. It was established by his son, John Donald Hobart '51, who attended the awards luncheon this year.