Staff Spotlight: Catherine Shenk

August 21, 2013
I AM UAA: Catherine SHenk

I AM UAA: Catherine Shenk

Landscaping Supervisor, Horticulture Crew
Hometown: Delphos, Ohio
Fun Fact: First came to Alaska for work with a fish processor, selecting high-grade roe for export to Japan.

Some of the more keen-eyed students on campus know there are fruit trees tucked in and around campus, says Catherine Shenk, landscaping supervisor for the university’s horticulture crew.

Cherry treeWhile it may come as a surprise to some Seawolves, our Tree Campus USA (four years in a row!) is home to everything from the alders and birch seen in many Anchorage neighborhoods to Bali cherry and hawthorne trees. Want to learn some of the other horticulture open secrets of UAA? The tree tour will help you stretch your legs and see a different kind of campus diversity.

Early spring in one small corner of UAA

Herb garden You’ve seen and appreciated their work all over campus, but you may not have met one of the head honchos of UAA’s landscaping crew. Catherine, who joined UAA’s landscaping crew eight years ago, heads up the team in charge of all the trees, shrubs, flower beds, garden plots (did you know about the herb garden outside Gordon Hartlieb Hall?) and indoor foliage.

Oh, and her crew also keeps campus snowplowed and sanded in the winter while simultaneously tending to the very earliest signs of spring in the greenhouse.

“We grow all our plants from seed,” says Catherine. “We start to see some green sprouts in February.”

Caviar coddling and attic raiding

Catherine is a master gardener with a background in history, art, vintage clothing and caviar.

During college, friends convinced her to try a summer in Alaska. That’s where the caviar comes in. Most Alaska fish processors have an “egg room,” and Catherine found herself working for Seward Fisheries sujiko (roe) technicians, selecting the highest quality eggs for export to Japan.

It wasn’t her first time finding diamonds among stones.

“Have you ever seen the show American Pickers?” Catherine asks. The History Channel show has its hosts cruising the country for lost treasures—in attics, barns and basements. That sort of treasure hunting is also on her resume, something she tapped into when she moved to Anchorage and eventually started her own vintage clothing store.

“I worked for a jewelry maker for a short time and then I bought my own business selling antique and vintage clothing. I had a shop on G Street, downtown, and I did that for about 10 years,” she says.

Caring for an Alaska legend

Before coming to UAA, she also spent four years as a caretaker for Norman Vaughan, an Alaskan with a storied past.

Vaughan was a dog sled driver in Antarctica for Admiral Byrd in the late 1920s, an Olympian in the ’30s, drove a snow machine from Alaska to Boston in the ’60s and competed as a late-blooming Iditarod musher in the ’70s and ’80s, to name just a few highlights.

“He ran the Iditarod 13 times after he turned 70,” says Catherine. “He lived to be 100, so he had this long life with amazing stories. It was a good inspiration for me, the idea that no matter how old you are, you can pick up your life and start new.”

Moose proofing and other head-scratchers

While working for Vaughan, Catherine also beefed up her landscaping and gardening credentials with some local companies.

Landscaping“I grew up in a farming community and always had a garden,” she says. With her natural green thumb and some valuable experience, she set her sights on UAA, eventually taking the helm as supervisor of the horticulture crew.

So, how do they decide on the plant varieties that make campus colorful?

“Sustainability is important at UAA, so we do like to use native plants, things that are naturally a part of our landscape. But also, being a university, we like to experiment,” she says. “Every year we trial some new things.”

They certainly have room to grow, with 37 annual beds on campus, everything grown from seeds they plant in the greenhouse in January.

“We like to develop a combination of color, texture and things that moose don’t like,” she says with a laugh. And the moose have been known to change it up from year to year, opportunistically munching on plants they’ve ignored in the past.

It’s always something. “Often the things they don’t eat, they’ll step on, looking for something they do want to eat,” she says.

Keeping campus green

What keeps her excited about her job—even the 4 a.m. wake-up calls for snowplowing in the winter—is the seasonal variety, from greenhouse work to tree planting.

“Part of the Tree Campus USA program is a ‘no net tree loss’ policy,” she says. “So the trees that were cleared to build the sports center, or other trees taken down because of disease or safety, we make sure they all get replaced. Over the next few years, we’ll be replacing 43,000 trees on property owned by UA.”

They planted 3,500 on the Kenai Peninsula this year already.

Thank-you notesShe also gets to share her love for horticulture with the next generation. Grade school kids visit the campus every year and join Catherine and her crew for the tree tour.

UAA is also home to Tanaina Child Development Center, where kids 5 and under get the chance to cultivate and enjoy vegetable gardens planted with starts from the greenhouse.

Next time you’re enjoying the beautiful landscaping on campus, take a page out of the schoolkid handbook and give Catherine and her crew a tip of the hat for greening up our world and making campus come alive.

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