by MARY CATHERINE GASTON
Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Here’s a good example: Google “Ole Miss national championships,” and the search results will tell you that the Rebels hold three national titles. Well, maybe they hold three national titles in football. But ask Jeff McManus, an Auburn horticulture graduate who serves the University of Mississippi as director of landscape, airport and golf operations, and he’ll tell you the school holds four—four national titles in landscaping.
In the 15 years since he joined the university as director of landscaping, the campus has indeed been recognized as the most beautiful college campus—ok, or one of the most beautiful—in the U.S. at least four times. And when you take into account that studies show that most undecided prospective students make a decision whether to apply to a college within 15 minutes of setting foot on campus, you begin to understand why these national titles might just be more important than the athletic sort.
So how did a guy from Douglasville, Georgia, who started school at Auburn as a marketing major end up in charge of charm at Ole Miss? He blames two people: his older brother, Craig, and Auburn horticulture professor Harry Ponder.
While McManus was studying marketing on the Plains, Craig opened a garden center in their hometown.
“I thought it would be fun to work there during the summer,” he says, “so I enrolled in a horticulture class to learn some plant names.”
That fateful class was Evergreen Trees, Shrubs and Vines, and it was taught by—you guessed it—Harry Ponder. McManus “absolutely loved” it. Meanwhile, he failed the marketing class he took that quarter. A few quarters later, unable to shake his fondness for flora, McManus returned to Funchess Hall for good. He graduated with a bachelor’s in landscape and ornamental horticulture in 1988.
“Dr. Ponder was a huge influence on me,” McManus says. “Still is. I remember being amazed by him, because he knew the names—Latin and common names—of every plant he saw. But the name he knew that meant the most to me was my name.”
Anyone who knows Ponder also knows he has a knack for names, storing the names of decades’ worth of former students like a human Rolodex and somehow keeping track of where most of them have gone and what they’ve done through the years.
Not only did Ponder get to know McManus by name, he also helped him land his first paid gig post-graduation, and within a year of earning his bachelor’s degree, McManus was managing the grounds of a 300-acre resort in Miami. Though he was working with a completely different set of plants than he had studied at Auburn, he says he was well prepared for the challenge.
“The most important thing I learned at Auburn was, I learned how to learn,” he says.
He learned something else from professors like Ponder and Gary Keever, who has often advised him since McManus took charge of the Ole Miss campus: He learned the value of investing in people.
“I used to focus a lot on growing plants,” he says. “Now I focus a lot on growing people, and they grow incredible plants.”
One way he accomplishes this is through monthly professional development classes he leads for his crew at Ole Miss. He calls the series “Weeders to Leaders,” and he’s been amazed to see how this simple effort has transformed individuals, the culture of his department and, in turn, the Ole Miss campus.
The effort has had such a profound effect on his own team that McManus has taken it on the road, offering leadership training as a public speaker. He’s also turned it into a book, due out this fall, Growing Landscape Weeders to Leaders.
Recently this weeder/leader was recognized as the Department of Horticulture’s outstanding alumnus for 2016. He was honored to have been nominated by one of his personal heroes—Harry Ponder.
“Jeff is simply one of the very best landscape managers in the country, and the University of Mississippi campus screams that to everyone who visits,” Ponder says. “He represents us in a way that makes us all proud of Auburn University.”
How does that ringing endorsement make McManus feel?
“I’m humbled,” McManus says. “I am grateful to have learned from the best at Auburn and to carry those lessons with me to Ole Miss.”