Busy Times for the 'Mayor' of College Road

John O'Brien spreads pine mulch, and good cheer, on his rounds

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The hyacinths are blooming, the scent of mulch is in the air, and the Mayor of College Road is on the job. Commencement is a few weeks away, and when landscaper John O'Brien is done, his corner of The Heights will sparkle like a gem.

Landscaper John O'Brien stands amid some of his handiwork: "The people here treat me well, and I want it to look good for them." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"These are all my houses. They're in pretty good shape," O'Brien said one recent morning as he led a guest through backyards awash with tulips and rhododendrons and cherry blossoms on College Road, the administrative row that has been his preserve for a dozen years.

"There used to be blue jays in there, and they used to attack me when they had a nest," he said, pointing to a section of shrubs behind Rahner and Donaldson houses. "And we've got a family of rabbits in here."

Commencement season is crunch time for the campus groundskeeper. Preparations for the May 21 graduation exercises began in earnest in late March. The month leading up to the ceremonies sees O'Brien working as many as 72 hours a week.

Last week, as unseasonably hot temperatures climbed past 90 degrees, O'Brien worked with a crew distributing hundreds of potted impatiens along Linden Lane. He set up lawn sprinklers, manned a power mower, and eyed ailing shrubs in need of replacement. He assessed the tulips, daffodils and other flowering perennials he'd planted by the hundred in front of the Botolph House office of President William Leahy, SJ, last fall.

"I take a little pride in it," he said. "I want it to look good. The people here treat me well, and I want it to look good for them."
The air was filled with the sweet smell of the pine mulch he'd been carting by the barrow-full since early morning. During the busy season, great piles of the fragrant chipped bark are delivered at break of day along College Road, and O'Brien and his crew hustle to have the mounds of garden spread cleared from the driveways before the first cars arrive for work.

How much mulch do they shovel this time of year? "Ooh-hoo," O'Brien whistled, "an awful lot."

O'Brien will mark a quarter-century at BC next year. He has worked in the grounds department for 19 years, the past dozen as chief of landscaping for the houses - now 14 in all - that quarter the University's president and vice presidents, the Jesuit Institute and other prominent administrative offices.

It's unclear who first dubbed him the Mayor of College Road, but the nickname readily stuck to the garrulous groundskeeper in the trademark watch cap who is noted as much for his flair as a raconteur as his facility with a rake.

"He knows everyone in the neighborhood - and has something to say about everyone in the neighborhood," noted Rev. Francis Mackin, SJ, who said his morning stroll from Bea House to St. Mary's Hall is typically enlivened by a chat with O'Brien.

Observed Vice President and Assistant to the President William Neenan, SJ, a former academic vice president and dean of faculties who has been O'Brien's friend for 15 years: "There are two sources of information at Boston College - official channels and John O'Brien. Usually they coincide. When they don't, I accept John's version."

O'Brien maintains a bantering repartee with everyone on his beat, student or secretary, priest or president. He gives people the business and is given it right back.

He recalled asking Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ, then University president and now chancellor, if any thought had been given to installing a sprinkler system. "What's the matter, John," came the response, "hoses getting too heavy?"

Associate Director of Community Affairs William Mills savors the opportunity to give his friend O'Brien the needle.

"John was walking across the Dustbowl one day when an employee of the Bookstore mentioned to him that the staff in Hopkins House was disappointed in the job he did mulching around the back parking-lot area," Mills said.

"Thinking there was a problem, John began spending a lot of time on the area, and asked me if everything was OK now with the mulching job. Having been let in on the joke they were playing on John, I told him I would check with my supervisor and get back to him. John began asking every couple of hours if my supervisor was happy.

"Finally, I had to tell him his friends were playing a joke on him," Mills said.

When the teasing is done, however, the compliments flow regarding O'Brien's dedication to the job.

Fr. Mackin marveled at the round-the-clock dedication O'Brien brings to the job. "We appreciate him most in the wintertime," said the Jesuit, an advisor to the Alumni Association. "He's out there early in the morning, shoveling snow from the walks at godless hours."

Said James Lehane, executive assistant to the president: "He makes the place look like a million-and-a-half bucks. He's got his hand in everything. It's a pleasure to walk around in John's grounds."

O'Brien, a native of Mission Hill and graduate of Boston English High School, worked in roofing and siding before taking a job at Boston College 24 years ago.

"I like my job," O'Brien said. "The best part is working by myself. I'm trusted by my boss, and left alone."

The tough part of the job comes in winter, he said, when he fights a prolonged battle against ice. Meantime, in Commencement season, any unforeseen bouts of bad weather can cause headaches.

But somehow, the campus always ends up looking like a postcard, especially so when thousands of graduates and their families descend in late May.

O'Brien credited the contributions of the unsung workers who tend the grounds and set up the conference rooms and empty the trash. "There's only 25 of us, and we've got an awful lot of area to cover," he said. "Sometimes the guys don't get recognized."

One of O'Brien's many friends along College Road, Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director Howard Gray, SJ, offered this assessment of the landscaper's vocation.

"John's spirituality is tied closely to a sense of personal investment in the enterprise of College Road, keeping the snow in its place in the winter and the flowers in their glory in the summer," Fr. Gray said.

"Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encourages us to find God in all things. Meeting John each morning as I come to Rahner House has been one of the easiest ways I have found God at BC."


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