Jody Gill takes over controls for STMA

I am proud and humbled to be the first STMA President from the K-12 membership category. I have served on the STMA Board under five different Presidents including Mike Andresen, Abby McNeal, Chris Calcaterra, Tim VanLoo and Sarah Martin. While every year was new and different, the inspiration provided by each leader and the thoughtful, constructive conversation and debate made for an extremely rewarding and educational experience.

I am so thankful for such a supportive family and employer to allow me the time to serve STMA for all these years. I am married to my best friend, Tammy, a clinical psychologist in private practice. My stepson, Curtis, is a senior in high school; my stepdaughter, Caroline, is a senior in college; and my daughter, Erin, is a senior manager at Delta Airlines. I have worked as the grounds coordinator for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, KS for the past 23 years. We have 38 schools, 1,300 acres, 105 sports fields and 15 full-time staff. I also spend several weeks a year on the road painting NASCAR logos with Kenny Bogner. As a licensed private pilot, I fly as often as possible. The multi-tasking required to fly is strangely relaxing.

Raised on football fields

My path to this point is a little different than most. I was not raised on a farm like several recent Presidents; instead I was raised on football fields and basketball courts. Dad was a football coach and Mom coached every other sport. I would always play with the other coaches’ kids on natural grass fields, except for the Astrodome, where Dad coached the Houston Cougars. Even at 6 years old, I thought the brand new carpet field in the Astrodome was weird and uncomfortable. I still feel the same way about synthetic turf today, more than 50 years later.

My parents instilled a solid work ethic. I loved mowing grass as a kid. In junior high school, I was mowing about 10 neighborhood lawns a week and spending my summers working at the Kansas City Chiefs training camp at William Jewel College in Liberty, MO. The job had nothing to do with groundskeeping but I paid close attention to the grounds crew after practice each day. Chiefs’ equipment manager Bobby Yarborough was known as the “yard dog” and I was one of the lucky kids selected to be one of his “pups.” This meant performing a wide range of tasks including water boy, ball boy, washing uniforms and setting up lockers. One of the highlights of camp was meeting George Toma for the first time. I was probably the only 13-year-old boy whose hero was a professional groundskeeper!

I had one day off from camp each week so I could go home and mow my yards. In high school, I combined my little lawn business with that of my buddy, Korey, and J and K Lawn Service was born. My first car was a pickup truck, not because it was cool but because it was a valuable mowing business tool. We also purchased a small fleet of commercial Lawn Boy mowers; remember the ones with the 1.2-gallon orange gas tank mounted above the engine? At our peak we were mowing about 60 lawns a week.

In addition to the lawn business, I was working at the Johnson County Girls Athletic Association (JCGAA) Fastpitch Softball Complex as a part-time groundskeeper in the spring and summer on weekends. In the fall after mowing slowed, we would work for Lawn Pro Lawn Service assisting with fall fertilizer applications, aeration and seeding.

After high school, I enrolled in the Horticulture-Golf Course Management program at Kansas State University. It was the closest I could find to a Sports Turf Management program that was close to home. Attending K-State was a great experience even though I would make the 3-hour drive home each weekend to mow lawns and work softball tournaments.

After college, I went to work again for Lawn Pro and Dr. Gil Chappell as his service manager. Gil was a PhD chemist who loved growing and maintaining grass so much that he stepped away from the corporate life to run his own business. He wanted me to run the day-to-day operations including technician hiring and training, fleet management, customer retention and some sales. Education was important to Gil and going to work every day was like going to class. I learned so much from Gil about the lawn business, turfgrass management, and public speaking, but I really missed working on athletic fields. He also encouraged me to become active in the Professional Grounds Management Society and the Kansas Turfgrass Foundation.

Sports turf a career?

In 1987, there was an opening at Johnson County CC for a sports groundskeeper. Even though they only had a handful of fields, Gil thought it would be a great move so I jumped at the chance for a full-time job managing sports fields. I worked up to managing several large landscape and athletic field renovation projects. After a few years, campus manager John Skubal felt I was ready to take the lead on a few athletic field construction projects, which included being a part of the master planning process for a new softball and soccer field. I knew then that I really could make a living building and maintaining athletic fields.

About 4 years later, JCGAA called again. They needed to expand and wanted me to come back to help build and manage a new 12-field complex. There were so many red flags about this job, including growing in all the grass from seed without automatic irrigation and almost non-stop play from March through August. But all I could see beyond those flags was the opportunity to build and manage a significant sports facility. When weather delayed construction past the fall seeding window, those flags grew larger since the start of the season and the ASA 12U National Fastpitch Tournament in late July would not be delayed. With the help of George Toma’s consultation, pre-germination recipe and 15 open top barrels we were playing softball in May after seeding a pre-germinated rye and bluegrass in late March.

This was especially difficult since irrigation was all above ground using Kifco water reels. The fields were not pretty but they were safe and playable. The fields improved after installation of in-ground irrigation followed by aggressive overseeding in the fall. The next year we hosted the MIAA Regional tournament and the NCAA Division II National Fastpitch Softball Tournament in addition to the regular season and many weekend tournaments. A requirement from the NCAA was to have four infield tarps and ability to deploy all at the same time, which was a tall order for a crew of three but doable with the help of volunteer youth teams.

Buying equipment was a challenge due to budget constraints. I was able to convince the Board to purchase a good quality utility tractor, mower, Gator, seeder, aerator and a wire welder so I could build my own infield equipment. I was promoted to general manager after taking over scheduling of the league’s 200 softball and basketball teams, a task volunteers were glad to give up! During my time at JCGAA, I attended several National Recreation and Park Association conferences, was elected to the Missouri Valley Turfgrass Association Board of Directors, met Chuck Dixon, Jeff Bruce, Dr. Dave Minner, Dr. Brad Fresenburg, and several others who would impact my career. I was also excited to be mentioned in a George Toma “And then some” speech.

Growing bermudagrass in Kansas

About 8 years later, I was encouraged to apply for a Grounds Supervisor position at the Blue Valley School District. They were in the middle of a sports complex construction nightmare. There was intense pressure to correct the construction mistakes that rendered the multi-million dollar District Activity Complex (DAC) unplayable a full year after completion. In the summer of 1996, the forward-thinking school board and executive director Dave Hill decided to hire a golf course superintendent and a sports turf manager together. In our 23 years working together, John Peterman and I have been involved in every step of construction for two high schools, five middle schools, nine elementary schools and 75 sports fields.

After several cool-season grass failures before 1996, consultants Chuck Dixon and Charles Williams recommended using Quickstand bermudagrass turf on future projects and the school board agreed. After opening the DAC in the spring of 1997, our new challenge was to develop a warm-season sports turf program in the northern transition zone. Local turf farmers refused to grow it for us so we had to do this in-house. I traveled to central Oklahoma several times to learn to harvest and plant sprigs and source the right equipment for our operation. In the summer of 1997, the Blue Valley Agronomy Center, a 10-acre Quickstand bermuda turf farm was operational. With the help of Chuck and Charles, I learned to manage bermudagrass turf. Our program was featured in the June 1999 issue of SportsTurf magazine.

Over the 17-year life of the Agronomy Center, we harvested and planted over a half million bushels of sprigs and about 30 acres of sod. In 2011, we discovered that bluegrass and bermuda get along very well and the need for re-sprigging or sodding after ryegrass transition was eliminated. Our last harvest from the farm was in 2014 and it is being repurposed into a tree and shrub nursery and composting facility. I feel blessed to work for a school district that had faith in our ability to problem solve and has allowed so much latitude for creative problem solving and presented many learning opportunities.

People make the difference

Many people have made a difference in my life both personally and professionally. I was fortunate to work with and learn from Chuck Dixon, Steve Hutchison, Dr. Gil Chappell, and Charles Williams. I was inspired to become more involved in STMA by Rich Moffitt, the late Bobby Campbell, and Dr. Mike Goatley; Troy Smith and Mike Trigg encouraged me to become a Conference speaker. The passionate people in our industry are the reason we will overcome the challenges we face, and there are challenges: a labor shortage impacting public entities such as schools, parks and public works operations; our overworking (ourselves and others), increasing stress on our health and our families; more students are needed for turf and sports field management degree programs; budget shortfalls and capital project delays; water restrictions; regulatory issues; climate change; synthetic turf; and more.

It is more important than ever that we find creative ways to attract, create and retain great workers by lifting them up rather than using them up. We need to work smarter, not longer and practice what we preach when we encourage our employees to take quality time off from work. We need to sing the praises of natural grass and continue to our push to increase professionalism and awareness of all that we do. The STMA will continue to be a valuable tool and resource as we work to meet the ever-increasing demand for safer and higher quality fields.