It was just a normal all-hands meeting at Facilities Services on Thursday until the cheering started.
“We’re looking for Ralph Padilla,” Michelle Gardner, assistant director of Student Life, told the group of facilities managers, who were all watching the group of students waving blue and gold pom-poms and surreptitiously carrying balloons—at least, as surreptitiously as one can carry balloons.
The groundskeeping manager, his hands in the pockets of his NAU jacket, stood up.
Padilla was announced as this year’s Homecoming dedicatee, an honor bestowed on one member of NAU’s faculty or staff each year to recognize their contributions to the university. Student organizations nominate people and then vote. It’s a decades-long NAU tradition—one Padilla, who spends a lot of time every fall preparing campus for Homecoming, is familiar with, but not one he anticipated being on the receiving end of.
“I was surprised, man,” he announced with a laugh when he emerged from his office to cheers from his coworkers, all of whom were sporting pins with his face on them—another Homecoming tradition.
Padilla has been on the grounds crew for 33 years. He’s planted flowers, mowed grass, kept the forested areas in good condition and done other duties as needed to keep the grounds looking nice. And, of course, he’s shoveled tons of snow in the last three decades, often in the early morning hours so campus would be accessible by the time classes started.
He’s also worked with hundreds of students in that time. The grounds crew relies on student employees to make sure all of campus is tended.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” Padilla said. “They’re part of our team—we couldn’t make campus look this good without our student employees.”
The same goes for his full-time crew; reflecting on his 33 years, Padilla said the best moments were when his team was recognized for their hard work or the university was noted for its beautiful campus.
“Grounds does a lot for this campus,” said Stephanie Bauer, director of facilities and maintenance, who called the meeting that was really just a chance to recognize Padilla. “Ralph is always willing to do what needs to be done.”
Padilla will participate in several Homecoming events, including judging the chili cook-off and attending a banquet in his honor on Oct. 13.
It’s extra special for Padilla—he got married two weeks ago, so it’s a big month. Plus, he’s played a big role in Homecoming every year, one that affects every visitor to campus. The grounds crews plant flowers, set up bleachers and do other preparation for the parade, get the carnival and bonfire ready for visitors and more. He used to pull the wagon wheel in the parade every year, but lately he’s let his crew do it.
Of course, this year, as Homecoming dedicatee, he gets his own ride.
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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