by Moira Cullings
EMPORIA — A year and a half ago, lawn mowing was the only landscaping experience Father Matt Nagle had under his belt.
But that didn’t stop him from getting his hands dirty when the Didde Catholic Campus Center at Emporia State University was overdue for an outdoor renovation.
“The first major project we had, there were four of us, and Father Matt was one of the first four,” said Larry DeDonder, landscaping project organizer.
“He grabbed a shovel and really went to work,” he said. “He’s learned how to do some physical labor on this project, which really impressed us.”
Father Nagle, chaplain and director of the center and pastor of St. Mary Parish in Hartford, arrived at the campus center in July 2019.
“And about eight or nine months after that, I had a few people mention that the landscaping looked a little rough,” he said, “and that it might be good to look at doing something [about it].”
At first, Father Nagle assumed he and a few others could take care of the problems.
“But the more I had people who knew about landscaping look at it, the more they said, ‘This is a much bigger project than somebody who has no experience should do,’” said Father Nagle.
After receiving a quote from a landscaping company, Father Nagle realized it wouldn’t be financially feasible to outsource the project.
But in the spring of 2020 during a leadership council meeting, DeDonder, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, volunteered to lead and organize the endeavor himself.
DeDonder retired six years ago after 30 years of working in the landscaping industry, and he was eager to offer his help.
“We’re very grateful to Larry,” said Father Nagle. “He’s the one who’s organized, planned [and] obtained supplies.”
DeDonder also manages the nine local volunteers who have helped with the project over the past 18 months.
The first task they checked off their list was taking out several trees and old bushes, trimming shrubs, and cleaning up gravel and weeds.
A major undertaking followed: a three-course retaining wall on the upper- and lower-level parking lots, which were extremely steep.
“We got into looking at a retaining wall that would reduce the slope,” said DeDonder. “And then, we raised the topography on both of the slopes so that we can now put weed barrier and some crushed rock on the lower level and some Colorado cobble on the upper level.”
The group also improved the area around the center’s emergency exits.
The work has been challenging, said DeDonder, but the generosity of the volunteers and an individual who offered his tractor and loader for the more strenuous parts of the job have made things easier.
DeDonder, who has a degree in animal science through Kansas State University in Manhattan, has enjoyed putting his landscaping experience to use post-retirement.
“Now that I’ve had this experience,” he said, “I’m willing to share it with Didde and see if I can help them out.
“It’s very important to me that this place looks landscaped and presentable for the public and for the university.”
Father Nagle agreed.
“We want the center to be a nice place where students feel like it’s their home away from home,” he said. “The landscaping certainly is part of that.”
And what the young priest lacks in experience he makes up for through his tireless commitment to the project.
“Often, what I’ll do is I’ll just be able to work [outside] a few hours in the morning,” said Father Nagle, “because then I’ll have to get into the office and take care of things there.
“But I’ve really come to enjoy being able to work outside for at least a few hours.”
The work has even become a sort of exercise for him.
“I really like the physical part of labor,” he said. “I was joking with some guys the other day that digging is the best workout I’ve ever had.
“Maybe I should just dig a trench to work out instead of going to the gym.”
For DeDonder, working alongside Father Nagle has been special.
“It’s so enlightening and encouraging to have Father Matt come out and help us,” he said. “It really shows his interest and his dedication to helping us get it done and to finish it.”
Father Nagle reciprocated the appreciation for DeDonder and the entire group of volunteers.
“I’m very appreciative to the guys who have really been tremendously generous with their time and talents on this project,” he said.
The men hope to wrap up the finishing touches on their work in the next few weeks and look forward to seeing the final product.
“I really feel good about what the end product is going to look like,” said DeDonder. “I feel like we’ve made a major improvement here around the Didde Center.”
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