Nelson to retire: campus 'tree man' branches out

December 13, 2013

In the heart of any community, you will find individuals willing to share their time, talent and passion to make the community a better place. One of those individuals has spent the better part of the last three decades creating and sharing CU-Boulder’s sense of place, and he’s retiring this December.

Alan Nelson, grounds specialist in Facilities Management, came on board as a grounds supervisor in 1986. Over the years, he has helped to shape the physical environment that routinely finds CU-Boulder in top-ten lists for most beautiful campuses.

As he looks back over his 27 years on campus, he considers the legacy of his work the landscape and especially the trees he is leaving behind. When asked to consider his favorite tree on the campus, he can’t come up with just one.

“I always think of the amazing Cottonwood that is on the south side of Old Main, which was most likely planted in 1879. It’s amazing it is still here, as cottonwoods are generally short-lived trees,” he said. “There is also a large red oak at the west end of Norlin Quad that is dear to me. This is one of the first donation trees that I worked on, and I planted it with CU’s President Gordon Gee in 1988. It’s now about 65 feet tall.”

“The Norlin Quad itself is outstanding,” said Nelson. “There are a number of original trees there. Someone doing research a couple of years ago found and sent me a copy of an invoice for 42 cottonwood seedlings for 52 dollars, dated 1879.”

The tree legacy he has helped create and maintain includes many donated and memorial trees; living monuments to faculty, staff, students and alumni of the university. You can read more about his work with the memorial and markers program in the article “Discover CU-Boulder’s public art and memorial markers.”

His passion for the maintenance and history of the campus’ trees led to his nickname, the “tree man.” (“Alan Nelson - CU-Boulder's ‘Tree Man’ ”) If you’ve taken one of his famous tree walks, you’ve heard stories about the microclimates on the campus which allow more exotic species to thrive, and the infamous tree trains which came from back east and brought saplings which have now matured into beautiful specimens across the campus.

His passion for trees has even extended to volunteering with fourth graders from Flatirons Elementary, who do a science unit related to trees for six weeks, and then come to campus for an identification, history and story-telling session with Nelson.

If Nelson’s contribution to the CU community was solely as the “tree man,” his legacy would be secure. But that’s not enough for a man who is passionate about the life and purpose of a living, breathing university campus. For many years, he participated in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as a volunteer actor.

“Getting to work with the talented people at CSF is awesome,” he said. “And a full house in the Mary Rippon theatre on a beautiful summer evening can’t be beat.”

His talents and dedication also extend to helping shape major events on the campus that may affect the university’s landscape. He reviews events scheduled for lawns, quads and other outdoor spaces, to make sure they respect the landscaped environment. This involvement also extends to his role coordinating the commencement processions for the winter and spring ceremonies. While he misses the quiet and intimate summer ceremony, which used to be held on Norlin Quad, he feels the happiest day of the year is the energy and emotion vested in the spring ceremony.

“Leading the procession from the Quad and to the Stadium is a great feeling. It is a signature moment for the campus, our students and the student’s families. I love it,” Nelson said.

As he prepares to retire, he has of course begun to reflect back on some of his favorite memories from his time on the campus. The energy and excitement of the CSF and commencement rank high, as does a recent invitation to be an honorary coach for Women’s Basketball in November of this year. However he closes with a favorite moment, which he has in fact helped create.

“Any quiet morning on Norlin Quad, as you look east towards Norlin Library, will rank high in my fond memories for this campus, “ he said. “It is a beautiful way to begin the day.”

Join Alan Nelson’s colleagues and friends for his retirement sendoff on Monday, Dec. 16, in UMC 235, from 1 – 3 p.m. 

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