On Monday of finals week, three UM groundskeepers are digging around the grizzly statue, unloading flowers from a beat-up white truck. This is one of their most hectic days of their year, but they don't rush things—not at Centennial Circle. Kristine Csorosz and one of her trusted crewmates stand over the flowerbed directly beneath Rudy Autio's statue, mulling what finishing touches to put on one of Missoula's most photographed locations before its big closeup on May 13—commencement day.
They decide the scene needs some pink. Light pink. "I think it would bring out the tones of your geraniums," Csorosz says, and then she's off in the pickup to retrieve the right flowers.
These plantings have become a spring ritual at UM, a way to showcase the campus to the thousands of family members and alumni who return for graduation. And even as spending at the financially plagued flagship has dropped $10 million in two years, flowers have survived the cuts.
The tradition started with Csorosz. She took a part-time groundskeeping job here in 1988, but soon realized there was more she could do to spruce up campus. She convinced her supervisor to plant some flowers along the back of Main Hall. The president at the time, James Koch, liked them. The number of beds expanded, and eventually the aging juniper bushes that surrounded the bronze grizzly bear were replaced with showy geraniums—all at Csorosz's direction.
Csorosz, who wears a long, silver ponytail, says she's known as the "flower girl" in deference to her horticultural savvy. She's adopted the nickname, but it risks diminishing the scope of her work. Csorosz is a seasoned industrial gardener who also drives the mower and plows the sidewalks in winter. She used to plant all the flowers herself, but as the groundskeeping staff has shrunk, it's become more efficient to team up.
The crew plants four or five truckloads of flowers each May, including 200-300 geraniums, 50-60 flats of various other annuals, and some other native plants and perennials. (For homecoming, they plant chrysanthemums). Csorosz's flower budget has remained roughly flat over time, so she's had to find ways to stretch her funds as the price of flowers goes up.
Csorosz says the plantings contribute to staff and student school pride and help make a good first impression on newcomers. But her floral choices can also enrich the outdoor atmosphere day to day.
"Sometimes people don't even know why. They come to work all hairy, then they catch a smell, or a splash of color," Csorosz says.
As Csorosz's fellow groundskeepers are touching up Centennial Circle, a woman walking by stops to offer them some donuts. They take a short break and admire their work. They hope commencement attendees will do the same. Saturday is a work day, and Csorosz says she loves talking to new graduates and their families—and watching them take photos, with her geraniums at their feet.