Sciarini keeps Univ. blossoming

Joe Sciarini didn’t think he would make it past his first week as a grounds worker at the Yale Bowl. The only thing he hated more than having to punch a time clock was his uniform: navy blue polyester pants with a crease down the front.

“I had my dermatologist write me a note saying I couldn’t wear polyester uniforms, even though it wasn’t true,” Sciarini said.

His uniform has changed — today Sciarini wears a lightweight windbreaker emblazoned with the word “Facilities” — but 17 years later, he still punches the time clock at six o’clock every morning, five days a week. As the master gardener for the Woodbridge Hall area of Yale, Sciarini is responsible for landscaping, trash collection and general upkeep around Berkeley and Calhoun colleges and Beinecke and Sterling Memorial libraries.

Yale groundskeepers have come into the limelight in the past week after one of their number was seriously injured in an equipment accident. Sciarini said he was shaken up by the incident, but he does not consider his job to be particularly dangerous.

A life in the garden

Sciarini said he “sort of happened into” a job at Yale, but with two parents employed here, the University was a constant presence in his childhood. His father, who helped develop the formula for the anti-AIDS drug AZT, worked at Yale as a research pharmacologist, and his mother worked in the dining halls. Both his parents are Italian, he said, and often professors visiting the University from Italy would stop by his father’s lab for a visit or come to his family’s house for food.

Gardening also runs in the family, Sciarini said, and since early childhood he has enjoyed working in the dirt. Starting when he was in kindergarten, Sciarini spent several weeks each summer helping out at his grandmother’s flower business in Italy, where he still goes to visit whenever he gets enough vacation time, he said. Closer to home, his mother is an avid gardener as well, and Sciarini said on weekends he continues to help her tend her “out of control” garden, which has over 70 tomato plants among other vegetables.

Several of Sciarini’s colleagues said they are consistently impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and gardening. Grounds Maintenance Supervisor Walter Debboli said Sciarini’s level of education — he has a degree in Environmental Biology from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire — is unusual for a grounds worker, and the time he spent in college shows he is a “true professional in the field.”

“He made a choice to make it his life as opposed to a lot of people who chose to make it their living because it was a job that came up,” he said.

But Sciarini said he did not graduate from college intending to be a grounds worker. Before coming to Yale, he said, he lived in Italy and worked at the family flower business for over a year, and upon returning to the United States he spent five more years doing tree work. During that period, Sciarini said, he took up bicycle racing, and he took the job at Yale in part because it allowed him to spend his afternoons training. Despite his family’s history at the University, he said, it was a coincidence that he ended up working here.

“That’s where the job was,” he said. “A couple of years go by, and a few more years go by, and you’re still here.”

Football stars and naked golfing

When he first started working at the Yale Bowl, Sciarini said, he was as excited about the football as the job itself. He had been an avid Yale fan throughout his childhood who would listen to games on the radio and knew all of the players’ names and numbers by heart. Working football games “really just floored me,” he said — although the novelty of being so close to his favorite team “faded pretty quick.”

Still, Sciarini said, one of the highlights of working at the athletic fields was getting to know the students who practiced there. He remembered with particular fondness Amanda Walton ’02, a field hockey player who was involved in a serious car accident after her sophomore year, but recovered and is now an assistant to the Yale coaching staff. Sciarini met Walton when she reached out to him at a field hockey luncheon. Sciarini had been watching uncomfortably as the coach “detailed everything that went wrong” throughout the season, while team members’ families looked on in shock.

Now that he works on Central Campus, Sciarini said, he has far less direct contact with students, but that they seem to appreciate it when he makes an effort to reach out with “a hi and a smile.” And while he often sees students “studying and in their own little world,” Sciarini said with amusement that he has also gotten a peek into a different side of the Yale experience.

“We get to know them from the end of school year and all the parties,” he said. “They’re slumping in the bushes or something. You have to make fun of them.”

Sciarini said he has seen countless escapades on the Women’s Table, including some involving naked golfing and tanning oil. He often spends Friday mornings cleaning up the damage from the night before, throwing away empty beer cans and cleaning up minor acts of vandalism, but he said Yalies are mostly “under control.”

“I kind of understand it, because I’ve been there before,” he said.

Still, Sciarini said it can be frustrating to see students walking carelessly over freshly reseeded ground, and sometimes he “kind of wonder[s]” if people notice his hard work. Debboli said that because grounds workers are “not a very visible force” in students’ everyday lives, it is easy to forget about their role in creating “the environment that we all live and play in.”

Sarah Diehl ’09, a student in Berkeley, said that as long as everything is tidy, grounds maintenance is not something most of the students generally think about.

“I think we’d care a lot more if it looked really ugly,” she said.

Plugging the leak

While each of Yale’s approximately 30 grounds workers is responsible for a separate area of campus, they share tool rooms, where they eat lunch and have coffee breaks, and sometimes team up on projects. Sciarini is a popular figure among his coworkers for his even temper and homemade wine, and while he said people can get “protective” of their particular part of campus, everyone bands together when necessary — especially, he said, when it snows and workers are out plowing at three in the morning.

Charles DeMartin, who worked track meets with him at the Yale athletic fields, said Sciarini has “a good working attitude,” and Paul McCarthy, a grounds worker on Old Campus, called Sciarini a “good guy” who “really knows his stuff.” McCarthy said he sometimes spends time with Sciarini outside of work, where he has gotten a chance to sample the legendary wine that Sciarini ferments himself. Wine-making is a popular hobby among grounds workers, McCarthy said, but Sciarini’s vintage is one of the best.

Ana Lizasuain, the grounds worker injured last Wednesday when she was pinned against a wall by a lawn aerator, works on Science Hill, and while Sciarini said he does not see her much in the course of a normal workday, he remembers joking with her the morning she was injured. He said he has visited her at the hospital and she seems to be improving. While the accident is “unfortunate,” he said, it does not change the way he sees his work.

Ultimately, Sciarini said, “the job is the job,” a way to make a living that has its ups and downs. It can be especially difficult to work around construction, like that which currently has Cross Campus covered with fences and tractors, he said, as more litter builds up in the area. Sometimes, in the rush to finish work on construction projects, the grounds are neglected or left to be addressed at the last minute, he said.

But Sciarini said he enjoys being a part of the Yale community — he has seen chef Jacques Pepin, Nikita Khrushchev’s son and Bill Clinton during their visits to the University and sometimes joins a group of Yale students on a bike ride around New Haven — and takes pride in his contributions to what he called a “beautiful” campus. His one real regret, he said, is that with all the work to be done it sometimes feels like “just plugging the leak” is the best he can do.

“It’s just nonstop,” he said. “I just wish we could do more make it better.”

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