‘Tree Bob,’ grounds services veteran, bids farewell to the Farm

Robert Garner retires after nearly half a century on the Farm.

If the palms that line the mile-long approach to campus could bow, they might have done so in unison last Monday afternoon for Robert Garner, who retired on July 31 after nearly half a century on the Farm. Known by many around campus as “Tree Bob,” Garner first came to Stanford in 1959 and started as a teenager working in a greenhouse; over the decades he took on various other responsibilities that eventually groomed him for the role of tree specialist.

Bob Garner, foreground, first came to work on campus at age 17 and stayed for about 47 years until his retirement on July 31. He is shown in this 1999 News Service photo with a tree crew that includes, from left to right, Sergio Larios, Ray Castillo and Neftali Galvan. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

At a going-away lunch on July 28 between the Avery Aquatic Center and the Sunken Diamond, some of Stanford’s highest ranking staff offered their gratitude and goodbyes – including Herb Fong, the university’s head gardener; Chris Christofferson, associate vice provost for facilities; and Provost John Etchemendy. Garner’s immediate supervisor over the past nine years, Grounds Superintendent Bob Murphy, spoke as well.

“Forty-seven years ago, I was just born,” Murphy said. “The grounds department was a very different place back then. Stanford was also a very different place. There was lots of open space everywhere, and as Bob likes to put it, ‘There were fields from here to breakfast.’“

Over the years, Garner has worked in a nursery and driven a tractor over the vast and rolling expanse of university lands – having never operated one prior. He also has mulched countless branches with a brush chipper, cleared fallen leaves in the Main Quad back when it was carpeted with gravel, cleaned the Roble swimming pool and field on a daily basis and, before Stanford eschewed pesticides, sprayed flora throughout campus – sometimes, beginning at 3 a.m.

All this was recounted by one colleague after another at the lunch, which doubled as a roast that was rife with jokes about Garner that ranged from his handlebar mustache in the seventies to the veteran’s wily ways of wiggling out of this job or that. Cohorts even got personal, but that just seemed to prove how tight knit they were with Garner and his family. His wife, Barbara, and a handful of close relatives sat at a table in the center of the festivities.

“My condolences go out to Barbara today because she now gets the whole husband but only half the income,” said Mary Nolan, field supervisor for Grounds Services and emcee of the event. The lunch opened with a poem by Fong called “47 Years at Stanford” and ended with groundskeeper Chris McGilvery lip-synching to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ “My Way.”

Through it all, Garner took it in with a grin – no retorts, just a thumbs-up most times. Murphy gave Garner a digital camera to capture his upcoming trip to Alaska, his tree crew presented him with a new chainsaw, and the Raging Grannies even stopped by – with parasols and pearls in tow – to lead the crowd of several hundred in a few sing-alongs about Bob and his longtime involvement in organized labor and keeping the campus green.

On a serious note, Christofferson said Garner has provided some balance on a staff that has become more diverse age-wise in recent years and for demonstrating to younger employees, who might see “their career in terms of portability,” that it is possible to create a life’s body of work instead of changing jobs every few years.

“Younger people don’t look at their careers as a life spent working for one employer – and so Bob really represents, I think, what is a very rare and a very valuable thing,” Christofferson said. “Bob’s career has been here, committed to Stanford, and I bless you for it.”

Etchemendy spoke next, stating that when students and parents are polled about what attracted them most to Stanford, one of the most frequently given answers is the beauty of the campus. He said that asset is a testament to Garner’s work, and the efforts of the grounds and facilities personnel as well.

“The success of a place like Stanford rests on the knowledge, loyalty and commitment of people like Bob Garner,” Etchemendy said. “Stanford is very privileged to have had Bob here for 47 years and to devote those 47 years to the health and welfare of the nearly 50,000 trees on this campus.”