RORG’s First Builder: Interview with Professor Tony Endress

By Sandra Bjerga, RORG Student Team Member

[Although Sandra has graduated and taken full-time employment (congrats, Sandra!) and isn’t our student anymore, she wrote this piece earlier this year for us. Enjoy!]

Did you know that the current renovation of the Red Oak Rain Garden is building upon work from almost 15 years ago? In 2006, Tony Endress, professor emeritus of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES), and several groups of his students worked with the University of Illinois Facilities & Services Labor Shop to create the original Red Oak Rain Garden.

I was thrilled to get the opportunity to interview Professor Endress about his experiences and background at RORG and how he became such a crucial figure in our garden.

Red Oak Rain Garden as a “young” garden (Fall 2007)
The original Red Oak Rain Garden, pictured in 2007.

Professor Tony Endress was born in Idaho and raised on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. As an undergraduate, he switched from biology to music and then back to biology after realizing it was a better fit for him. He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, with a B.S. in Biology in 1967. His graduate study was at the University of Iowa where he earned a Ph.D. in Botany in 1974. From there he pursued post-graduate work at the Statewide Air Pollution Research Center located at the University of California Riverside. Professor Endress then came to the University of Illinois in 1990 as the head of the Department of Horticulture. He became even more interested in plants and started working as a mycologist. He then studied the effect of air pollution on plants and became a cell biologist. 

While we talked, Professor Endress drew attention to a unique experience prior to coming to the University of Illinois. In a crucial encounter, he met an undergraduate teacher who sparked an interest about plants that continues today. He claims that if it weren’t for that teacher, his professional path might have looked entirely different. From the experience, he discovered his passion for plants and for helping others learn about them.

He also learned from that experience that “information needs to be applied, not just covered”. Since hands-on activities offer important and practical learning, their integration within courses can both enrich the student experience and benefit the community at large. Prior to 2005, Endress was involved in several hands-on projects, including the renovation of the mansion pond at Allerton Park, the build of a rain garden by Turner Hall Greenhouses, a bike trail plan for the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation, and several wetland and prairie restorations for the Urbana Park District and Champaign County Forest Preserve District as part of his NRES Restoration Ecology class.

Involvement at the Red Oak Rain Garden

Professor Tony Endress addresses the crowd at the RORG’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2007.
From left: then-Vice Chancellor Linda Katehi, Prairie Fire artist Jennifer Astwood, Eliana Brown and Karie Neukomm who were both F&S staff at the time, and Tony Endress.

In 2005, Professor Endress decided to take on the rain garden project with his NRES Restoration Ecology class. This is what led him to meet our RORG Director, Eliana Brown, who was then working for David Wilcoxen at Facilities and Services (F&S). At the time, David, in conjunction with the Environmental Counsel, administered grant funds for Faculty-Student sustainability projects. Eliana knew about Tony’s past efforts and encouraged him to apply. Professor Endress wrote a compelling proposal and was awarded a grant. Thus, he integrated the rain garden’s design and construction into his NRES classes.

What first drew his attention to RORG was the opportunity for himself and his students to work with clients, creating designs for meaningful work. This work included producing environmentally sound designs for the garden and installing a wide variety of plants. Professor Endress says one of the things he loved most about RORG was how his students made the designs come to life.

Many students have been able to gain hands-on experience outside of a classroom by working in the garden. It is important to note that hands-on experience at that time was not as available as it is today. Endress wanted more than anything for his students to get the benefit of experiential learning. His approach lives on today as Eliana uses it as the model for working with faculty that engage their students in service learning at RORG.

The 2006 design and construction involved about two dozen students enrolled in three different courses across three semesters. The entire process also included many volunteers, some were Allen Hall residents, others were community residents. During the spring semester, two student teams selected the rain garden project. Each team submitted a design and work plan that was juried by practitioners and the F&S client. A plan was selected. An on-campus summer internship class refined the plan and organized a materials list and implementation logistics. Finally, in the fall semester, students enrolled in a practicum class and volunteers built the garden after prep work by F&S.

Endress laughs that one of his most memorable moments was the enthusiasm the students had for the garden as they wheelbarrowed 60 tons of rock to fill the main portion of the garden.

Student installing rock (Fall 2006)
Students moved 60 tons of rock into the Red Oak Rain Garden during the original build. Photo by Tony Endress.

NRES Class Lifelong Takeaways
Professor Endress says, “The garden project from student design to student build was possible because there was enthusiasm and commitment at the campus level and willingness to provide resources to allow students to make mistakes and to learn in the process of building and the challenges that means.”

To him, this was more than a rain garden build. It became a learning experience in which a beautiful community was formed. Students from Allen Hall with no prior gardening experience found it therapeutic to work with RORG and shared interaction with other students. Friendships were formed through the process and knowledge and work skills were acquired. On the topic of student interaction, Professor Endress says “I think we all learn from people who are different than we are, whose experiences are different than ours are.”

It truly built a community of people that was enthusiastic about the environment and that enjoyed the leisure of experiential learning. Students could become so involved, so engaged, and could contribute not just cerebrally, but physically to a place they thought would have residual and enduring value. Professor Endress explained that this was a special and rare occurrence.

Professor Endress affirms that one of his most rewarding experiences was helping students direct their desire to make a difference toward becoming people of purpose. Everyone involved with RORG gained information, grew as professional contributors, and made long-lasting personal memories. At the same time, they made positive contributions to the campus and neighborhood communities that still resonate today. 

Endress stays in touch with many of his former students by receiving updates on their progress via social media.

Professor Tony Endress addresses the crowd at the RORG’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2007.

RORG Post-2006
It’s no secret that the rain garden fell into disrepair after the excitement of the new garden faded. The work that Endress and his students had done was extremely helpful and successful. Endress says that he wasn’t surprised that the garden became unkempt. Maintaining a rain garden takes time, money, and lots of hands, which were not abundant at all times. As students left and graduated, it became more difficult to find people to help maintain and keep the garden. There’s seemingly no single reason and no one was to blame for the garden’s metaphorical drought. Endress says that the best thing to do is to just move forward and figure out what to do differently next time. As with most things, change is the only constant, lessons are learned, and we build back stronger.

Endress notes that the garden today has a more holistic design and a greater diversity of plant species. He appreciates the upcycling of wood from Allerton Park for the recent build of the boardwalk bridge and admires the plant-centered design perspective, which he now shares as well. In fact, Tony served as an advisor for RORG’s renovation.

Advice to ensure the longevity of the RORG
RORG’s most important need is maintenance upkeep. Professor Endress acknowledges the considerable effort needed to care for a garden but that it is necessary to keep it functioning. He suggests partnering with commercial entities that provide resources for maintenance. Endress adds that a successful and sustainable garden should have designs that operate close to the way nature operates, in an integrative and long-lasting approach. Luckily for us, our plant-centric design based on methods discussed in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World does just that!

Red Oak Rain Garden pictured summer 2021. Photo by Layne Knoche.

Hopes for RORG and the University long-term
Endress hopes the University would take a nuanced approach to its property and take actions that mimic nature systemically and systematically, not just at RORG but all across campus. RORG provides many ecological and aesthetic benefits and offers a successful example of what could be done on other areas on campus. 

Where is he now?
Endress currently resides in San Diego where he became an officer and board member of Tree San Diego, a nonprofit organization. They focus mainly on planting trees in disadvantaged communities. He also works with Lumbercycle, a nonprofit that plants, maintains, and repurposes urban trees into furniture and building products,. Endress also helps lead the San Diego Green Infrastructure Consortium. They operate as a multidisciplinary brain trust for applying the tools of green infrastructure at the watershed scale toward enhancing the San Diego region’s capacity to build resistance in the face of climate change and other sources of environmental degradation.

And of course, a huge Thank You!
As we move forward in the renovation process of the Red Oak Rain Garden, it’s important to not forget our roots (literally). The garden blossomed with Professor Tony Endress and we hope to continue to do the same. Thank you, Tony!

Comments from Former Students

Professor Endress had an impact on the University, RORG, and all his former students who were involved. I was able to get in contact with some of those former students and learn more about their experiences with Professor Endress and the Red Oak Rain Garden. Such former students include graduates from the College of ACES, NRES: Arun Soni (2006) and Alexander Mills (2008).  

Arun Soni
Alexander Mills

Both students recall creating plans and designs for the Red Oak Rain Garden. Arun says it was a challenging but fulfilling project and Professor Endress provided an excellent foundation. Arun emphasizes the encouragement Endress gave his students. Alexander shares that the steps they took as students under Endress’s guidance are the very same steps he takes professionally today. Both students agree that the RORG project gave them real-world learning experiences and has helped them greatly over the years. Alexander remarks that Endress showed a model example of how to lead a group through his professionalism, work ethic, and relationship building. 

Favorite memories
One favorite memory that stuck out to Arun was presenting the final recommendations to a panel of experts and how it helped him post-graduation in his career endeavors. Alexander’s favorite memory is when he and Professor Endress drove to a supplier of stone to check the availability of products. There was one shortcut they took marked “Authorized Use Only” and Professor Endress asked him if he was authorized to be doing this. To which Alexander replied, “I sure must be since I’m riding with a full-fledged University of Illinois Professor.” It was amusing to them both. Alexander also adds that using a wheelbarrow for the project during those hot days was unforgettable. 

Alexander shaping the basin when he was a student in 2006.

Arun’s favorite part of working on the RORG project was the collaboration with classmates and learning to work better as a team. He remarks that it’s better to find common ground to overcome disagreements. Alexander’s favorite part was the start-to-finish nature of it and the level of responsibility involved. 

Professor Tony Endress is a truly exceptional person.
Can’t overstate the tremendous positive impact he had on many students of the University and on the University itself.

Former NRES students Arun Soni and Alexander Mills

Both students have kept in contact with Professor Endress over the years. Arun emphasizes how Professor Endress has been a very important person in his life and how fun he is to be around. He and his friends still visit and stay in touch with Endress despite living many states away. Arun adds that he and Endress commiserate when the U.S. men’s soccer team doesn’t win. Alexander reached out in 2018 when he started his current position and they exchanged back-and-forth communication. 

Both former students ended by saying that Professor Tony Endress is a truly exceptional person and they can’t overstate the tremendous positive impact he had on many students of the University and on the University itself.

What are they doing now?
Arun is currently on the board of directors, and vice-chair of nonprofit Clean Wisconsin. Regarding his career, he took a bit of a different path from college and is now a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. He can continue to work on both his passions moving forward.

Alexander is currently the Executive Director of the Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Rockford, Illinois. He can confidently say this is his dream job and reminds himself how thankful he is to work with such great people at an amazing place. 

Sandra Bjerga was a member of the 2021 Red Oak Rain Garden Student Team. She graduated from UIUC in spring with a degree in Communication and dual minors in Public Relations & Psychology. She currently is a Public Relations and Social Media Specialist at ECHO, Incorporated.

Cover Photo by RORG Director, Eliana Brown

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