Green (and gold) thumb

Jul 3, 2002 at 12:00 am

Jim Inglehart jingles as he walks. A set of keys dangling from belt loops on each hip. His white knee-high socks nearly meet his green-belted shorts; a baseball cap covers his wavy mane of graying hair and shades his blue eyes. Leather boots carry Inglehart across Wayne State University’s campus on a blistering summer day.

Inglehart, 62, is as used to the sweltering heat as he is to Michigan’s brutal winters. For 20 years he has loyally and lovingly maintained the university grounds, tending to every mum, lily and crabapple tree. With a 16-person summer crew, he is charged with caring for half of WSU’s 200 acres.

Anyone who spends time with Inglehart quickly discovers that his concern for the campus goes well beyond watering the flora and emptying trash bins. Inglehart treats the grounds — and the university, which he worships — like his personal Garden of Eden. His passion for the place pours forth as he provides an unofficial walking tour.

“That’s called The Dancing Maidens,” says Inglehart, pointing toward at a metal sculpture outside the Walter P. Reuther Labor Archives. “It was a gift from the Reuther family.”

He frowns at another outdoor sculpture. Someone has defaced it with graffiti. Inglehart runs into a maintenance manager and promptly informs him of the vandalism.

Inglehart finds sensible ways to fix problems. To prevent skateboarders from riding on concrete planters and gouging their edges, he had metal brackets bolted on every couple feet.

“We just put them in last week,” he says. “We’ll see if they work.”

When Wayne State University President Irvin Reed had chain-link fences bordering grassy areas removed to open up the campus, Inglehart had boulders strategically placed to preserve the lawn.

Strolling between campus buildings — there are more than 100 of them, according to Inglehart — he picks up trash and drops it in a bin. When he spots a weed, he yanks it from a flowerbed or the cracked concrete.

“My primary job is to spot things that need to be done,” he says.

Inglehart is good at spotting things. He peruses a planter and shouts at one of his crew, who is mowing the lawn. “Look at your mums, they’re like bushes,” chides Inglehart

“Give me a break,” his subordinate pipes back, smiling.

The two men tease and fuss over the mums, which should be pruned three times before July 4.

“Mums are one of the few that will bloom until the hard freeze,” explains Inglehart.

Inglehart’s knowledge of Wayne State transcends its landscape. He rattles off university trivia, knowledge he says he gained from reading.

“I just save every article I find,” he says.

Among the factoids:

• WSU’s undergraduate school of social work has been ranked No. 1 in the country five years in a row.

• WSU has the largest single-campus medical school in the country.

• Wayne’s won more men’s and women’s fencing championships than any other school in the country.

• Wayne State’s enrollment, 31,000, is ranked 25th in the country.

The trivia he retains comes in handy when Inglehart gives a monthly bus tour of the campus to new employees, a volunteer duty he relishes.

But there is another reason why Inglehart adores WSU. In 1962, after graduating from Roseville High School and spending more than four years in the Navy, Inglehart enrolled at the university and earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies and speech. He worked in the mailroom until he became a teaching assistant in 1972, and began working on his Ph.D. in communication rhetoric and public address. But he dropped out after his wife of three years unexpectedly left him. He needed a full-time job and started driving a bus for Wayne State’s physically challenged students. He held that position until he moved to the groundskeeping department in 1982.

“The university has been a kind of safety net,” says Inglehart, who has lived a stone’s throw from the campus for nearly 40 years.

Inglehart never remarried, but has filled his life with activities, most of which revolve around the university. He is a 40-year member (and currently president) of the Wayne State bowling league. Inglehart is also president of his union local and pitches for an intramural softball team.

His other passion — the only one he spoke of that didn’t involve WSU — is Christmas. All year, Inglehart keeps three full-size decorated trees in his 1,275-square-foot apartment on Fourth Street, where he has lived since 1964. He belongs to a Christmas ornament collectors club and plans to put up two more trees.

He is asked what he’ll do when — or if — he retires.

He pauses to ponder the question.

“Maybe I’ll bring my pup tent to Tampa Bay, camp and watch the Tigers’ spring training,” says Inglehart.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]