Former Penn State professor Dan Stearns left lasting impact

Former Penn State professor Dan Stearns left lasting impact


Dan Stearns, a former professor in the Penn State’s plant science department, died last month after a battle with cancer.

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Although my friend and colleague Dan Stearns lost his battle with cancer last month, his legacy and memory live on in the lives of his family, friends and countless students that he mentored and assisted over the years. In many ways Dan was a Renaissance man — an excellent landscape architect, award-winning teacher, former administrator in U.S. Forest Service, musician, enthusiastic cyclist and a successful business owner. I remember Dan as a true professional, fine gentleman, with a real passion for biking and the outdoors and for his warm smile and friendly demeanor.

Dan and I were both retired and professor emeritus of the plant science department. During his career at Penn State beginning in 1989 he worked on building a successful and well-respected Landscape Contracting program in the department. Being a very accessible professor, students reached out to him for his advice during their time in the program and long after they graduated. Dan and I both shared a passion for teaching students and Dan summed up his philosophy: “Teaching is a partnership, and the role of the teacher is to help the students explore and teach them to learn, to get them excited about learning.”

Craig Weidemann, another friend of Dan’s, wrote to me that he remembered Dan always went the extra mile in his teaching and mentoring his landscaping students. The State College native also deeply loved nature and working outdoors around his home and farm.

As you walk around the Penn State campus and the State College community you might not be aware the various projects (usually two a year) that Dan and his students undertook to help beautify and improve both the campus and community. These projects enabled the students to learn the entire process of Landscape Contracting from the design, materials available to the implementation. I always enjoyed going up on the third floor (home of the Landscape Contracting Program) and seeing the students working on the designs and then seeing them implementing them around campus under the watchful eye of Dan and his colleague Martin McGann or Mike Mahoney.

One project that I especially enjoyed watching develop was the student garden located behind the Horticulture Greenhouse complex across the street from the Agricultural Administration building. Since Elsa Sanchez and I had started a very popular Gardening for Fun and Profit course we really were excited when Dan said they were going tear out the old, small Quonset-shaped greenhouses and put in raised garden beds that we could use for the class. Dan and the students did a wonderful job and the raised garden beds were made from large Northern white cedar lumber, which is very durable and attractive. The beds and the fence around the garden are all part of Dan’s and the student’s legacy. Our students thoroughly enjoyed planting vegetables and small fruits in the beds. Scott Diloreto, greenhouse manager, seconded what a wonderful addition the garden has been to the horticulture facility and our programs.

Tommy Wareham, a great musician in his own right who grew up with Dan in State College, noted to me when we were both enjoying breakfast at the counter at the North Atherton Waffle Shop that Dan was a lifelong and talented musician who played a variety of instruments. As I said before — Dan Stearns was indeed a Renaissance man.

So, when you walk around the Penn State campus or are out and about in the community you might view some of the structures and garden designs Dan was involved with — the gardens/plantings around the Tyson Horticulture Building, Old Main, Carnegie Building and Eisenhower Auditorium. Or you might see the pond, garden and walkways around the Hintz Family Alumni Center, or visit the House of Care on Beaver Avenue where a new paver patio and walk, custom-built gazebo, screen fence, new plantings, and installation of a new handicap ramp from the house were installed. Or you could stop by the Youth Service Bureau where a complete landscape restoration, including demolition of existing garage, paved patio and walks, installation of a split rail fence, new plantings, new retaining wall, and construction of a trash enclosure were completed. Or if you’re hiking up Mount Nittany where the construction of a wooden bridge helped people hiking the trail to the top, take time think of Dan and his legacy of teaching students and making the campus and community a better place.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email: [email protected]

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