Galbraith reflects on a career working in his ‘back yard’

Adela Talbot // Western News

Jim Galbraith, Manager of Landscape Services & Waste Management in Facilities Management, is retiring after 34 years at Western.

Western’s campus was covered in snow, the buildings were empty and the lights were off when Jim Galbraith first drove onto campus, ready for work, in January 1981. It was supposed to be his first day on the job, but no one told him the university would be closed for Western President’s Day.

Today, more than 34 years later, Galbraith, Manager of Landscape Services & Waste Management in Facilities Management, is retiring, leaving behind nothing but fond memories of places and faces on Western’s campus.

“Western has been my back yard, my second home – it really has,” said Galbraith, whose attention to campus grounds over the past three decades has resulted in high praise from organizations including Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, Princeton Review and Communities in Bloom.

“You just have to walk around campus, and you’ll see this place has grown and things have changed a lot – even in the last four or five years,” said Galbraith, who was among the recipients of the Western Award of Excellence last year.

While working for a private landscaping company before coming to Western, he used to drive through campus, admiring its potential. Landscaping was much sparser then, and campus wasn’t as busy when he first came on as a lead grounds person. But things changed quickly when he took the horticulture reins.

Over the years, Galbraith’s vision created a campus community known to many now as one of the most beautiful in Canada.

For instance, the ‘Welcome Garden’ – on the northwest corner when crossing the bridge on University Drive – was built in 2001. It was Galbraith’s idea – he wanted to make campus stand out for the Canada Summer Games, hosted by London that year.

“Before, it was a piece of flat grass, barren-looking. We added some stones, planted flowers. Since, it’s been on the cover of many magazines, especially with the tulips,” he said.

“My job has been to make the campus look good, green, colourful and safe. People love it and we take a lot of pride in that. We don’t have to be voted one of the prettiest campuses – we know we are,” Galbraith chuckled.

With 36 buildings on campus to work around, his team can’t say one spot or one garden is worth more time and care than another.

“Everyone’s building is their place of work, their place of study and that’s important to them,” Galbraith said, adding studies have shown students are more productive in classrooms where windows look out to a more lush landscape.

But his efforts haven’t just gone to making campus beautiful. Winters have always been tough, and Galbraith has been in charge of keeping campus safe on the snowiest and iciest of days.

“Winters are likely the most stressful thing; you don’t get a minute off. You go to bed wondering when the phone’s going to ring. With 40,000 people, campus has to be safe,” he said.

“From the moment they arrive on campus from the city streets of London, their expectations are higher. We have everything done by 6 a.m. and that takes a lot of work. We have to start planning for winter now.”

And that’s something Galbraith won’t miss after he leaves – waking up at 5 a.m., being on call during the holidays, waiting for a 2 a.m. phone call after a big dump of snow. Everything else, he looks back on fondly.

“Western’s been really great to me – I’ve met some great people, I got to experiment, have fun and see some neat things. I will miss the activity, the chaos of campus, the students, the changing seasons. Really, I’m fortunate, and pretty happy,” he said.

Campus has been a great place to work, and a beautiful place to just walk and relax, he went on.

“I don’t have a favourite spot on campus, but there’s a spot back by TD Waterhouse on the river bank side. If you go back there, it’s like going to Muskoka. The river bends; there are three or four rocks; you can sit and read. No buildings. In the fall, the leaves reflect off the water and the water comes down, it’s like I’ve left the country,” he said.

Galbraith plans to continue doing landscape consulting and salt reduction training after he retires. He looks forward to travelling with his wife, and tending to his garden at home in Lucan.

“You know you’ve been here a long time when the trees you planted are being cut down,” he said.