Leading the Pack: Joyce Lee enjoys nothing more than nurturing the beautiful SIU campus

Photo by Russell Bailey

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Spanning over 1,200 acres with more than 31 miles of sidewalks, 14 miles of roads and 12,340 parking spaces, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus and landscape requires near constant attention.

Thankfully, grounds supervisor Joyce Lee is on top of the work, taking great pride in doing her part to make campus shine.

Long-time member of the PSO family

A long-time Carbondale resident, Lee’s career is deeply rooted at SIU. She started in 1996 as an operating engineer at the Power Plant, being the first and only woman to work there at that time. In 2004, she started working as a grounds laborer, before earning a promotion to grounds foreman in 2015.

Those around her easily recognize Lee’s pride in her work and passion for excellence. For Brad Dillard, director of plant and service operations at SIU, Lee is an excellent representation of SIU and excels as a PSO team member.

“Joyce has done an excellent job within her zone and is a great employee for the grounds department,” Dillard said. “Just take a few minutes to talk to Joyce, and you can clearly see the passion she has for her zone, her staff and the university as a whole.”

Maintaining the campus curb appeal

As one of four grounds supervisor at SIU, Lee is always busy overseeing those she works with and jumping in with the various tasks assigned. A normal day in Lee’s life might have her mowing lawns, spraying weeds, trimming trees, arranging flowers and bushes, shoveling ice and snow or watering garden plots.

While the work is physically demanding, especially in extreme temperatures, Lee finds immense pleasure in seeing campus thrive and grow under her watchful care.

One of Lee’s favorite parts of her work on campus is when she overhears others talk about how beautiful all the flowers, trees, gardens and trails look, knowing that she gets to contribute to the beauty all around her.

“Standing there and knowing that I was a big part of that is so rewarding,” Lee said. “They don’t know me and they aren’t saying it for my benefit; it is just what they believe.”

Lee loves to walk around campus and see how all her trees and bushes have developed over the years. Whether the colors are bursting forth in springtime or stately trees are growing big and strong in summer, Lee enjoys each piece of it and takes great pride in her work.

Working with her team to keep things going

With campus divided into six zones for maintenance, Lee and her team manage zones one and six, which includes Old Campus, Morris Library, the Student Center, the Recreation Center, the softball fields, the Health Services building, Rainbow’s End and housing areas.

About 20 other PSO employees work under Lee’s supervision, as she receives assignments from superintendent of grounds, Dave Tippy.

“I have a wonderful group of people who work for me,” Lee said “They are all knowledgeable about what needs to be done and we just work together throughout the day on our various assignments.”

Beyond just working with her colleagues within plant and service operations, Lee loves interacting with the many student workers who also join the team throughout the year. The goal is to keep campus beautiful for all the current, new and prospective students who pass through.

“The work that Joyce and her crew does in their zone is of the utmost importance for us to put our best foot forward as a university,” Dillard said. “I like to say that we catch the student’s eye, and then pass the baton off to the next areas of campus, such as admissions or enrollment offices.”

Receiving her diploma after 39 years

In a recent turn of events, Lee is no longer just an employee of SIU; she is also an alumnus. She started at SIU as a young 18-year-old freshman in 1980.

However, life pulled her in many different directions, hindering her from graduating very quickly. She picked up classes again in 2003, but again faced delays.  

Earlier this month, Lee decided to check back in on her degree, only to discover she had enough credits to graduate this year. Thanks to the help from those on campus, Lee was able to rush through the process and walk with the other graduates at the May commencement ceremony.

“I started college when I was 18, and I finished at 56,” Lee said. “It took me 39 years, but I finished it.”

Always staying busy

In addition to her busy life maintaining campus, Lee continues to keep up with her own lawn care business. Managing the business for the last 39 years, she loves spending her time outdoors and pouring her heart into her work.

“I love being outside,” Lee said. “I love seeing what God created in all the beautiful trees and flowers. I am just blessed to have a job that keeps me outside.”

Even when she is not hard at work mowing or landscaping, most of Lee’s hobbies still include nature. She loves to ride her bike and walk around Campus Lake, along with spending time with her three lovable dogs.

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