UNC Campus

UNC’s “Official Tree Hugger”

Manager of landscaping and grounds behind massive effort to catalog 3,695 trees on campus
By Dan England

Pat McDonald knew every dang tree on Purdue University's campus as its groundskeeper.

That went beyond doing his job well. He held the job for 22 years, after graduating from there. He didn't even really want the job. He had dreams of joining the U.S. Forest Service. But he interviewed for it to practice, and lo and behold, they offered him the job.

"You know how it goes," McDonald said. "I got married, had kids…"

He trails off. He enjoyed the job, but he loved the trees. And because he loved the trees, he knew when he had to leave Purdue. It was when administrators didn't seem to love them nearly as much.

"Every free space on campus, it was like they had to fill it with another building," McDonald said. "You know. We could put another dorm there, and get more students, and make more money. That's all well and good, but…"

He trails off again. That was years ago, but the story reminds him why he loves his job at the University of Northern Colorado. It's a job he's held for 10 years, and it has a more official-sounding title now. He's UNC's manager for landscaping and grounds. But the job remains the same. He's the keeper of the trees (and bushes and shrubs and flowers, too, but the trees are his favorite). In fact, he gives himself another title. He calls himself the Official Tree Hugger of UNC.

He loves taking people around the campus, mostly because UNC still has people in charge who believe in open space. The campus is, indeed, considered one of the prettiest parts of Greeley. If you take a tour with McDonald, he seems to know every dang one of the trees on UNC's campus too.

That, however, took some work. He'd worked for UNC for 10 years, and finally, this summer, he got the time to catalog all 3,695 trees on campus.

He made that time himself, as he spent many of the 57 days it took to inventory them this summer after he completed his other duties, which usually meant walking around with UNC student Brent Engel in the late afternoons, stretching eight-hour days into 10 or 11. He didn't care.

"It was really fun," McDonald said. "It was the first time I could get intimately connected with the trees here."

He needed Engel's help because he had a hip that would eventually be replaced. On some days, on a scale of 1-10, the pain was a 3, and on others, he said with a grit of his teeth, it was 100. But the pain was worth it, as long as he had Engel's help. He valued the help so much, he said, he also gave the student the title of Official Tree Hugger of UNC.

UNC does value its trees. In 1988, the last time a survey like McDonald's was completed, there were 1,269 on campus. UNC's not only apparently kept its tree-hugging philosophy intact, it's expanded it by quite a bit. McDonald hopes that continues to be true. He's applying to be a Tree Campus USA. If UNC gets the designation, McDonald hopes to host a big celebration on Arbor Day next April.

McDonald loves to point out UNC's three former or current state champions determined by the Colorado Tree Coalition. The trees have to be tall and big in diameters, although size is not the only thing that matters, he said with a grin. It has to be in good health and have a good look to it.

He also points out other trees that have some significance, including those close to being state champions, such as the Cottonwood on the corner of UNC's Visitor Center. McDonald doesn't like to point out many cottonwoods: They're boring trash trees with weak wood planted by developers because they grow fast. But that one, he says with a smile, is pretty cool. He even likes to point out the ones that seem to have a special relationship with him, like the apple trees next to UNC's famed School of Music: He picks up the fruit unnibbled by squirrels and makes them into pies.

As a part of the Arbor Day celebration, McDonald wants to enter enough information to make a tree trail, a path where others can walk UNC and see all of its significant trees. McDonald had a great time doing that this summer, and he sees no reason why others wouldn't enjoy it as much.

Almost as much.

"Do we have a beautiful campus or what?" he says before heading back to his golf cart. NV


Download a pdf slideshow and descriptions of Pat's favorite trees.


“We’re thrilled to receive this designation as we take great pride in the beauty of our trees, which serve as an outward reflection of the vibrant education and community here,” UNC President Kay Norton says of achieving the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA designation. “This distinction represents not only an acknowledgment of sustainability through the years but also validates the foresight of previous campus leaders, whose shared vision transformed a barren landscape in the 1890s into the thriving tree-lined canopy that it is today.”