To describe Luther Nolan as a gentle giant would be much too simple. Yes, he stands about 6-foot-4 and has a thick build, but his work in academia pushes him past the overused phrase and into a whole new level. A level not only filled with great students, but great workers, great friends and great mentors.
The 47-year-old father has worked at Ohio State as a groundskeeper for 16 years, but his time at the university began a few years prior as a student. His education started then, and it still continues today. Because on May 6, like nearly 12,000 other students, Luther will be graduating. But this degree isn’t his first from Ohio State, nor will it be his last. Because for Luther, education doesn’t stop. And neither will the time he puts into giving back to the university he’s been a part of for nearly half his life.
If his stature and build don’t immediately set him apart from the typical student, his bright orange sweatshirt, fluffy beard and tan work overalls will.
Or, his soft-spoken nature and curiosity for culture and passion for learning will.
Maybe his orange construction vehicle he drives from work to class will.
Regardless of what one sees, it’s evident the student-groundskeeper who typically works more than 40 hours each week while keeping up with coursework as a nearly full-time student and father, is different.
Good different. Kind different. Compassionate different.
Luther sat in Crane Cafe in Hagerty Hall on a small chair surrounded by smaller students with their heads down and headphones in. It was almost the end of January and classes were just starting to ramp up.
The first week of his semester was filled with the nerves that typically come with beginning a new schedule and meeting new professors, but in addition to that he had to work through a few snowstorms.
One Friday, he came into work at 3 a.m. and worked until 3:30 p.m., went home, slept a bit, and got called back in that same day around 7 p.m.
In total, he worked about 20 hours that day. But he didn’t miss class.
“It was insane. I came in early because I had to do flex time to make up for class,” Luther said, clarifying that the one class he did miss around that time was one in which he notified the professor of possible poor weather conditions one week prior, just in case he wouldn’t be able to come.
“Professors are always fine with it. They understand,” he said. He’s used to the process of having to balance work and school, but oftentimes his school work was squeezed in small slots throughout jam-packed days.
Time management “is rough,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll just clock out at work and sit there and do some of my homework and readings. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. It’s like squeezing [homework] in when you can.”
Luther first came to Ohio State in the late ‘90s. Like many, he was 18 years old. Like many, he realized just how expensive higher education could be. So, he looked around for a job, did what he could to make ends meet, and eventually began working for the university’s groundskeeping crew.
The work was fulfilling, and the pay was needed. Luther stopped his education just short — one class short — of graduating, and kept on working his hardest. It took 16 years for Luther to come back and graduate with his degree in anthropology. But that one degree wasn’t enough. Learning and going to class and making friends all while continuing to work as a groundskeeper was what he loved to do.
Luther started his fall days at 3 a.m. on Fridays before football games; 5 a.m. every week day; and worked most weekends.
His work began in a huge garage just across the street from Ohio Stadium and just behind the Oxley numbers. That garage has buzzing, fluorescent lights, lockers, equipment and about 20 people who make up the university’s grounds crew. It has tables filled with empty McDonald’s coffee cups, one lone schooner from Chumley’s and a dozen or so vehicles that are basically better-equipped construction vehicles — think golf cart, but bright orange with an attachment that picks up mounds of rubble and gets up to a speed of 18 miles per hour.
His days at work were filled with mostly non-students. His days of class were filled with mostly non-groundskeepers.
The most he might have in common with a typical student is his Thursday night sleep schedule. Like Luther the typical student might be awake around 3 a.m. Rather than cleaning, raking, plowing or shoveling campus, that student is probably on High Street. And rather than going from work to class with hardly any sleep, that student probably power-napped between the night’s events and the next day’s class.
Joe Yarchak calls Luther a “Renaissance man.”
“He knows a little bit about everything,” said Joe, who has been working as an Ohio State groundskeeper for about one year less than Luther.
Joe said Luther is somebody who is “knowledgeable, logical, open-minded, and plays devil’s advocate to make you think.”
The crew works constantly year-round, even if it’s cold. “We still prune, clean beds. There’s all kinds of things we could be doing,” he said. “We’re always busy.”
A scruffy man with expertise in pruning, Joe explained just how complex his and Luther’s work can be.
“Any person can mow, but not any person can mow correctly,” he said.
As for pruning shrubs and trees, the whole process is basically a form of art.
“It’s kind of like Michelangelo. He could look at a stone and then just chip away the excess. That’s how I look at plants. I can see what it’s going to look like before I even move a branch,” Joe said. “Our job entails a lot of details that most people don’t understand. They think anybody can do it.”
Their shifts begin with a crew meeting. Luther is just below supervisor, so his responsibility is hefty. He tends to work with new employees and mentor the youngest people, too.
These new hires and college-aged kids are typically the ones older workers can’t seem to get along with, said Jennifer Fullenkamp, a graduate student in landscape architecture.
But Luther can.
“They always end up with Luther,” Jennifer said. “If he starts complaining about something, there’s an issue.”
Jennifer also began as a groundskeeper about five years ago as a student at Ohio State and has been working with Luther since.
“He’s always talking about school,” she said in between sucking up leaves in November. “Especially right now.”
At the time, he was in the middle of applying to Ohio State’s doctoral program in Latin American studies.
Jennifer worked with Luther not only to shovel snow, pick up trash and clear any obstructions in walkways on campus, but also when applying to schools for master’s and doctoral degrees.
“He had a lot more paperwork to fill out than I ever did,” she said.
The nerves of an unknown future seemed to be taking up Luther’s time. He signed into an old computer one work morning to double-check on his application status.
“Nothing yet,” he said with a sigh, noting that a lot of the students in his current classes hadn’t heard anything back either.
It would be a few months until Luther finds out what exactly his future hold. At that time, he put his focus toward a big leaf pile near High Street.
“I’m happy where I ended up and I’m excited to see where I am going.” – Luther Nolan
Anything that could potentially block a student from their education bothers him, which is a reason he’s stayed on the job for so long. He knows just how defeating a figurative or literal bump in the road can be.
With one year left before completing his first undergraduate degree, in anthropology, his path approached a big, figurative bump.
“I had one more class left to take, but due to an illness I couldn’t take the class,” Luther said. “And that was all I needed to graduate.”
Because of student loans, the illness and classes that compiled together, he decided to work and earn money to put toward his savings.
A decade and then some passed until one day, he paid off a large loan and decided to enroll in that one class he never finished. He walked to Denny Hall, and said the adviser didn’t believe it when he told her he only had that class to take before graduating.
She found that he was right. And he graduated in 2013 with an anthropology degree.
“The journey has been long. Ups and downs. It’s been crazy,” Luther said.
Of all the things someone that worked so hard to obtain a degree could do after graduating, staying put in the same position and going back to complete more school isn’t necessarily the top contender.
For Luther, it was.
This time around, he’s getting a degree in history, with one minor in Spanish and the other in Andean and Amazonian studies.
“I like learning, I like going to classes. I like the stuff that I’m focusing on now. I really do like learning about Latin America and South America and just the indigenous people of the areas — just kind of the whole thing, the history, the cultures,” Luther said.
He knows Quechua, the language the Incas spoke. He can write names in Mayan glyphs. He wishes he knew the language native to Bolivia, but doesn’t have time to also master that.
His spring schedule regularly consisted of work, class, work, homework, rest for an hour, taking care of his daughter, homework, sleeping for a little, repeat.
“My schedule is so busy, with the classes and my [8-year-old] daughter. When I get off work today, I get the chance to rest for like an hour and a half, then we go to ballet. Then I’m going to a concert, it’s an Andean music concert/ Peruvian music concert, and I think they’re going to have some Peru musicians actually play Andean music, I believe, which I think would be incredible to hear,” he said in January during an afternoon break.
He tries to involve his daughter in his life as a student. She comes to his Andean music ensemble performances and plays along with the class.
“He really loves music class,” his co-worker Jennifer said. “He loves all music.”
Luther’s Andean music class is offered for students to take up to eight times. He plans to take all eight — he’s at three right now.
The class, which played in Hale Hall every Thursday, consists of a few hours each week learning new music on traditional Andean instruments such as wind pipes and drums. The songs the class sings are in Chakcha, the traditional Queria language.
He plays the windpipes in one hand — it takes the support of both hands for everyone else — and wears a rainbow-striped instrument carrier around his waist.
Luther practices between songs, and tries to keep the beat with his feet, thumping his right, salt-covered workboot to the rhythm as he stands in a circle of Keds.
One instrument trips him up: the drums.
“Attack it,” said Michelle Wibbelsman, his music professor. “Rock with it. Move with it.”
But it just doesn’t seem like Luther has it in him to use his power to attack anything, least of all a drum.
Aside from his bright attire and construction glasses atop his head, Luther fits right in with his music class. He laughs when the other students laugh. He cracks jokes and sings nervously at first, waiting to grow in volume when he starts to feel more confident.
His love for different cultures originated in Cleveland, where he grew up.
“I think what fascinated me first were like, just the customs that were so different than what I was used to,” he said. “I took my first anthropology class in a junior college and fell in love with it right away. I remember on the midterm, the teacher made such a big deal because I did so well. I missed one question.”
Throughout his decades-long Ohio State journey, Luther never second-guessed himself.
“I never doubted my ability to do it,” he said, referring to the second undergraduate degree he will soon earn.
“In fact, I have some good news,” Luther said, smiling.
The same snowy second semester week that he worked 20 hours in one day, Luther was accepted into his doctoral program of choice. He will continue working at Ohio State in Autumn 2018 as a groundskeeper and continue his education to earn a doctorate in Latin American studies.
While he could have stopped his studies five years ago, or could have planned to stop his studies in May, there wasn’t any urge to stop. Because to Luther, life is essentially a time to learn as much as possible about as much as anyone can.
“Education is growth. It’s sharing. It’s cooperation. It’s expanding your viewpoint and helping other people expand theirs.
“It’s a community,” he said.
“I don’t separate it from any other life experience because it’s constant. If you’re not learning, if you’re not continuing your education everyday somehow, you’re in a stalemate.
“I’m happy where I ended up and I’m excited to see where I am going.”