Whether the job calls for power tools or perennials, Tufts’ first-ever female groundskeeper gets it done
Kate Fuller can operate a forklift, drive a dump truck, wrangle a chainsaw into submission, and install a fence. She can design a garden, install a roof de-icing system, and mow acres of grass like it’s no one’s business. Is there anything she can’t do when it comes to outdoor maintenance? Repairing small engines, she admits, but that’s next on her list.
All those skills come in handy for Tufts’ first-ever female groundskeeper and the only woman on the Medford/Somerville campus’s 19-member grounds crew, which also includes utility workers and drivers. She’s one of seven groundskeepers.
At 5 foot 2, Fuller says neither size nor gender have ever been an issue on the job. “There’s really nothing I haven’t been able to do physically, and all the guys have been really kind and accepting,” reports Fuller, who came to Tufts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she got her start in groundskeeping in 2016. “We have machinery savants, tree and gardening experts, turf specialists, athletic field pros— and they’re very willing to teach me what they know.”
Fuller’s stint at Tufts began at a most inauspicious time: March 2020, right before the world shut down. And while the pandemic has meant profound changes to the way the college operates, the grass still needs to be mowed, hedges trimmed, gardens designed and planted, leaves blown, flowers deadheaded, and snow plowed. “The groundskeeper’s job is to keep the campus clean, safe, and beautiful for the Tufts community to enjoy,” says Fuller. “The pandemic hasn’t changed that.”
One of Fuller’s favorite parts of the job is designing and installing perennial beds and flower boxes. “You work around the quality of light, the soil types, complementary colors, and how the whole thing looks against the background of a building,” she says. She loves autumn, when leaf blowing, mulching, and mum planting is at its height. This fall, she was amused by the mysterious appearance of dozens of pumpkins all over campus: the pranksters set them on to building corners, perched them atop sculptures, speared them through fence posts. “It looked awesome,” says Fuller. “You questioned how someone could reach some of these places.”
The Tufts Medford/Somerville campus spreads out over 150 acres, and Fuller is responsible for one of its four zones. Hers includes the academic quad; Alex’s Place (the library rooftop green space memorializing a Tufts student who died in 2003); the southern section of Boston Avenue; and the western part of College Avenue, which is home to the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center and the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School.
She said one of the most underappreciated features of the campus are its grand, sprawling American Elm trees, which are regularly inoculated against their number one enemy: Dutch elm disease.
Fuller graduated from college with a degree in physical education, but her time as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Utah Conservation Corps confirmed her suspicion that working outdoors with her hands was what would make her the happiest. Stints with private landscapers, a garden center, a farm, a ski resort, and a conservation nonprofit provided her with valuable land-care skills. But most of those jobs were seasonal, and until she discovered groundskeeping, she didn’t realize working outdoors could be year-round and a viable career. She loves it.
“There’s a peace you get when you’re working with your body,” explains Fuller. “It’s nice to see the change of seasons and to be in touch with mother nature and the weather. You go home at the end of the day feeling really good: you used your mind and your muscles. It’s a wonderful thing to see the fruits of your labor.”