Earth mother

MU students, staff and faculty have all likely walked past Colleen Thomas as she works to keep the campus flora beautiful.

  • colleen thomas smiles in front of greenery
    Colleen Thomas has worked as a University of Missouri groundskeeper for more than 11 years.

Sept. 18, 2023
Contact: Deidra Ashley,
Photos by Abbie Lankitus

Colleen Thomas sits cross-legged and sock-footed on one of the University of Missouri’s many tribute benches — this one cooling in the shade of a verdant magnolia tree. Her scuffed and muddied work boots have been temporarily discarded, full of the soil that also covers her hands as she recalls her misadventures in Hawaii.

“I was a ‘woofer,’ (a term for workers with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and we were growing noni,” said Thomas, outlining the shape of the tropical fruit in the air. “For $20, you could choose from a list of places all over the world that were accepting volunteers. I chose the big island, and I slept out in the lava fields on the edge of the ocean.”

Thomas spent four years in the Aloha State, just one of her stops before returning to her hometown of Columbia in 2004. For the past 11 years, Thomas has worked as one of Mizzou’s devoted groundskeepers — helping maintain more than 1,252 acres of botanic garden.

“My family has lived in Boone County since 1815, and I’ve been gardening my whole life,” Thomas said. “I just love being in the earth and among the plants. It keeps me grounded.”

Garden variety

As a child, Thomas and her dad planted and tended gardens on their property off West Broadway near Crossroads. That interest blossomed into a love of heirloom vegetables, a hobby that allowed her to sell produce at farmers markets whenever the spirit moved her.

“There are heirlooms of everything, and my husband and I would grow these big, beautiful gardens full of heirloom vegetables,” said Thomas. “I’m talking 30 different types of tomatoes, 30 different types of peppers — back when most people were only familiar with five.”

Today, Thomas can be found kneeling and weeding in one of her assigned plots — perhaps the wildly eclectic Memorial Union landscape or the oft photographed Tiger Plaza greenery on Carnahan Quadrangle. Despite what might seem like a solitary occupation, Thomas is a natural and breezy conversationalist. It’s a skill she honed years ago, helping her mom out in the now defunct family business — Little Dixie Press and Graphic Engraving in downtown CoMo.

“It looked like an antique printing shop, and Mom preferred to stay in the back where she could do her work,” Thomas said. “So, I would greet the customers out front — sometimes with blue ink up to my elbows from the printer.”

Of Thomas’ interesting duties at Mizzou, the most nostalgic for her includes working in the greenhouse, located near the MU Research Reactor. The tropical floral varieties — some of which are reminiscent of the Hawaiian landscape and are used for Mizzou’s summer displays — require precise watering and lots of TLC.

“I’m over there three days a week, watering, changing soil and cleaning as time permits,” Thomas said. “We occasionally take clippings for propagation. And we have plants, like hibiscus, that will grow on campus and get bigger and bigger. Then we’ll dig them up, repot them and put them in the greenhouse.”

Alongside Thomas’ affinity for plants is her love for people. She loves spending her days bonding with co-workers and passersby.

“If someone hasn’t met Colleen, they definitely won’t be strangers for long,” said Jenna Sommer, MU horticulture manager and Thomas’ supervisor. “She is genuinely one of the most outgoing and friendly people you’ll ever meet. She loves chatting with people and getting to know them. She’s such an interesting person as well, with interesting hobbies — playing guitar, bead work. She’s a very creative person.”

Thomas is but one of a dedicated 28-person Landscape Services staff team who work together to keep Mizzou’s kaleidoscopic campus colorful. The squad constantly supports one other, stays nimble and members pitch in where needed.

Plus, you can’t beat the workplace.

“I think it was Monet who said, ‘the light constantly changes, and that alters the atmosphere and beauty of things every minute,’” Thomas said. “On campus, especially right now, every week everything changes. It’s an ever-evolving picture, and that's what I love about it.”

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