UM-Dearborn is known for maize and blue…and also a little bit of green. That’s the color of the John Deere gator Jeanette Whiting has driven around campus for years.
With her work buckets and gardening tools in the back and dragon wings on the side, the advanced master gardener helped beautify campus — always with a friendly wave, hello or laugh — for 35 years. On Oct, 7, she parked her gator in the Grounds Building for the last time.
“All good things must come to an end,” she said, walking out of the building’s massive garage doors. “UM-Dearborn has been an important part of my life. I hope I left a mark here and will be remembered with a good story and a smile.”
Reporter staff had the chance to talk with Jeanette (and ride in the gator!) on her last day at UM-Dearborn. She shared a few funny and entertaining stories — her specialty — along with sweet nostalgic ones reflecting on the U-M career she’d had since 1987.
Her family inspired the career she loved.
Jeanette grew up in Dearborn. Her parents’ home was near the intersection of Greenfield and Ford roads — just a block from where legendary automaker Henry Ford grew up. But, even as a child, Jeanette wasn’t much interested in her family house itself. Instead, she noticed the yard and how her parents cultivated it. There was a pear tree they’d pick from and a crab apple tree with fruit so large that they’d can the apples.
Her mother liked flowers and, in particular, roses. Her father went a more eccentric route. “He liked unusual things — things no one else had at the time. Because of dad, we had hibiscus, hardy geraniums and a catalpa tree with leaves so big that I could use them as an umbrella,” she said. “Dad died when I was 13, but his interest in unique plants left an impression on me.”
Today, she’s an Advanced Master Gardener, a renowned horticulturist certification. In her personal garden, Jeanette continues that tradition. For example, she has plants with a flower that looks like a bat face (bat-faced cuphea) and a bush with oil that smells like buttered popcorn (Senna didymobotrya), among others.
“I like the trivia behind a plant — why it is the way it is and how it functions. Studies show that nature uses what it has and doesn’t waste anything. Everything is in that certain arrangement for a reason. But nature also reminds us that even with so much order, it’s ok to be a little weird,” she said. “Of course, I also just enjoy them too. Plants sparkle in the sun, they attract different pollinators, they have unique fragrances and a variety in their colors. It’s like nature knew we’d need plants as therapy.”
When it comes to supporting campus growth, she thinks beyond plants.
Jeanette has a knack for understanding how things work in the plant kingdom. Knowing this, people often stop to ask her questions. “Sometimes I get really interesting ones — sometimes there are doozies. One lady asked for advice on keeping her marigolds alive. I asked how often she watered them. She didn’t,” she said. “I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t. So I told her to start there.”
Asking Jeanette why she’d take time to interact with people when it wasn’t an essential part of her job, she uses a plant analogy. “Pay attention to what plants need and they will thrive. Mums need daylight. There are two ways to get Christmas cactus to bloom — light exposure and cold temperatures. And if you take a plant that’s short-lived like a perennial and keep it from going to seed, it will live.”
After a pause in thought, she continues, “For many of our students, it’s their first time in the outside world. What we do is more than landscape work. It’s listening to help. It's showing students that people on campus are approachable and friendly. It’s being an example for these students who are our future.”
Jeanette said you never know what someone’s home life looks like and what they are going through — and it doesn’t take much effort to be kind.
“If we want a future with people who have a good work ethic and are friendly to each other, we need to show them what that looks like,” she said. “I’m not saying that people need to radiate sunshine all day, but give a wave and a hello. That goes a long way.”
There were some memorable experiences along the way.
Campus left an impression on her starting with day No. 1. Jeanette recalls her interview for the UM-Dearborn grounds job. Not sure what to wear since it was an outdoor gig, she went for business casual. She showed up in a nice shirt and slacks. And the then Grounds Director Fred Brenner handed her a steel rake.
“He said I needed to take the steel rake and go rake up grass clippings. Well, it was me and Gene Wackro, who also applied for a grounds job at that time. Anyone with sense knows that steel rakes are for leaves, but we did it. Found out later that Fred was testing us to see if we’d come back. We both did,” she said. “So I learned right away that you gotta be nuts to work here, and to work here you gotta be nuts.”
In another recollection, she said the circus came to town and she saw an elephant going into the Fieldhouse through the loading doors. Jeanette didn’t watch the show, but she did pull up a wheelbarrow to the dumpster when the circus left.
“Elephant poop makes great fertilizer — so the grounds crew headed out to the dumpster and took advantage of that. It wasn’t entirely pleasant at the time, but it makes for a good story afterwards. And I enjoy a good story. The people I’ve met and the memories we’ve made is why I stayed for 35 years.”
She looks forward to traveling during retirement, but hopes people stay in touch.
Jeanette plans to spend retirement gardening and traveling. She and husband Larry — they’ve been together 40 years — will continue visiting the nation’s state parks and botanical gardens. She also plans to spend time in Alaska, where their daughter Jamie lives. “She has moose in her front yard,” Jeanette marvels. "Isn’t that something?”
Jeanette said there are a lot of changes happening in her life this year. Jamie just got married at the Detroit Zoo. Breaking Jeanette’s traditional outfit of jeans and her UM-Dearborn branded shirt, she wore a dress and makeup to her daughter’s wedding. “I never wear makeup,” she said. "My kid said I looked nice, but I thought I looked like the funeral director just got done with me.”
With retirement here, Jeanette said she’s not going to miss the shirts. Or the green gator (well, maybe just a little). It’s the people who make leaving bittersweet. She said the campus was her domain, and the people in it, family:
“Now go out there, wave, smile and interact. Continue the tradition.
Always your eccentric gardener,
Article by Sarah Tuxbury.