The University of Mississippi campus is known as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the nation. Ben Oliver, a junior majoring in public policy leadership, wrote this story for JOUR 102 Introduction to Multimedia Writing about the man who leads Landscape Services at UM.
Make no mistake, the University of Mississippi’s Oxford campus is one of the most beautiful in the nation. That can be attributed to the climate, to the weather, to any number of things, but many attribute the beauty to Jeff McManus, director of Landscape Services.
“Sixty-two percent of prospective college students will make their decision to attend a college or university in the first few minutes of a campus visit,” McManus said. “We regularly hear from parents, students, and faculty how the look and feel of the Ole Miss campus connected with them.”
McManus is known not only for his knowledge of landscaping but also for his talent as a leader. One man cannot keep an entire campus beautiful. He recognized this, so when he was hired in 2000, he made it his mission to develop his leadership skills.
Twenty-one years ago, Chancellor Robert Khayat recruited McManus. He was struck by the fact that Khayat had “started believing in Ole Miss before Ole Miss believed in herself. He knew that Ole Miss could be different.”
In one of their first meetings, they took a walk through the campus. While pointing out the different academic buildings and dorms, Khayat suddenly stopped. He reached down and pulled up a weed.
“What are you doing?” McManus asked.
“I am weeding by example,” Khayat said.
McManus believes that Khayat was a one-of-a-kind leader. He had a vision and was able to motivate people with ease. The former chancellor retired in 2009, but McManus said he continues to use what he learned from Khayat to motivate his landscaping team.
“The relationships McManus has fostered with his employees are a testament to his effective communication skills,” said Rosie Vassallo, director of Retiree Attraction for the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation. “He demonstrates how a team effort can reach great heights, as they have won national awards in landscaping.”
Five years ago, Vassallo came to McManus to work with the Economic Development Foundation to hold a Landscaping Camp. The camp showcases the work of the landscaping team, and the fourth camp will be on May 28-29 this year.
His speaking skills, as well as the many accomplishments of his team, have attracted visitors from states including Texas, Kentucky, California, Georgia, Maryland, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Alabama to join those from Mississippi.
He is a leader, Denise Hill, retired superintendent of Landscaping Services, reportedly told John Touloupis of “The Daily Mississippian”.
Hill arrived at Ole Miss in 2000 as well, just a few months before McManus. She was on the landscaping crew, working one of the gas-powered trimmers. McManus quickly saw her potential.
After a few months, McManus offered her the opportunity to be a supervisor. Instead of accepting, she turned it down. However, after a short while, she accepted.
A few years later, McManus came to her again, only this time to offer the job of landscaping superintendent. Again, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to make the step up, but McManus was persistent.
After learning the ropes, she did wonderfully, and according to McManus, she “ran the campus” up until her retirement.
It may seem like McManus was born to be the director of Landscape Services, but his career almost took a different path.
Raised in the small town of Douglasville, Ga., McManus planned on a career in marketing. After meeting a professor who inspired his love of plants, he switched to horticulture.
He said he still thinks about that professor, Dr. Harry Ponder, today.
“After weeks in the class, even though he knew all the plant names, the thing that stood out the most to me was he knew my name and every student’s name in the class,” McManus said.
Dr. Ponder was an inspiration to McManus by being knowledgeable and displaying exemplary leadership skills.
McManus earned his Bachelor of Science in Landscape and Ornamental Horticulture from Auburn University and is a certified arborist.
Since his arrival, Ole Miss has won five national landscaping championships for Most Beautiful Campus by organizations such as “Newsweek” and The Princeton Review. The university twice won the National Professional Grounds Maintenance Society Best Maintained Campus Award.
“It’s easy for someone to say, after meeting Jeff, that he loves his job and is proud of the natural beauty that can be found on the Ole Miss campus,” Vassallo said.
McManus has been married since 1994 to his wife, Suzanne. They have four children, named Sam, Nathan, Joshua, and Mark.
He has written two books: “Pruning Like a Pro” in 2015, and his latest: “Growing Weeders Into Leaders” in 2017.
“Everyone who works with Jeff takes great pride in their work product and that speaks volumes in regard to his leadership skills,” said Dr. Dennis Tosh, retired professor in the School of Business.
“It’s crucial to recognize every person is valuable and should have a voice and a seat at the table,” McManus said. “Giving people a voice, giving them some ownership of what’s happening, makes a tremendous amount of difference.”