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Plant Science's Stearns Remembered for Unwavering Support of Students
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 11/29/2021

Dan Stearns, J. Franklin Styer Professor Emeritus, who served as the inaugural professor and program coordinator of the landscape contracting program in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, is being remembered as an extraordinary educator and mentor whose care for and commitment to students -- and the landscape contracting industry -- was unparalleled.

Stearns died Nov. 6 at his home. He was 70 years old.

"Dan Stearns was a model educator, dedicated to the success of his students and the landscape industry, always quick with a smile and a determination to help others," said Rick Roush, dean of the college. "He is deeply missed."

The news of Stearns' death has profoundly saddened those whose lives the professor positively influenced, including former student Edward Anewalt. In the 1990s, Anewalt was taking classes at Penn State Berks while building a landscaping business that he started in 1988.

There came a time when the Bernville resident thought one of his goals -- earning a bachelor's degree in landscape contracting -- was unreachable because the classes he needed to complete the major were at University Park.

Moving wasn't an option; he and his wife, Lori, had purchased a home and property for their business. That left him no alternative than to commute, which would mean a daily, five-hour round trip. He thought it might be too much to take on.

He found a champion in Stearns, who was steadfast in his commitment to helping Anewalt succeed. Stearns created a flexible schedule that made the commute easier and provided support and encouragement to ensure that the nontraditional student achieved his goals.

"Without Dan Stearns, I would not have succeeded," said Anewalt, who earned his degree in 1998. "He spent extra time outside of class to work with me, but I was not the exception. Dan went above and beyond for all his students -- his door always was open. Everything I learned at Penn State with Dan, I could apply directly back into my business, which has grown sixfold since that time. I am forever grateful."

Stearns earned his bachelor's degree from Penn State and his master's degree from North Carolina State University, where he also served as a research assistant. Before becoming a faculty member at Penn State, he was a landscape architect for the New York State Department of Transportation and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in North Carolina. He also owned lawn-care and landscape-architecture businesses in Massachusetts.

After working in the private and government sectors for more than a decade, Stearns ventured into teaching, serving as the inaugural professor and program coordinator for Penn State's landscape contracting major from its inception in 1989 until his retirement in 2017.

Stearns was the epitome of a caring and committed educator, said Erin Connolly, professor and head of the college's Department of Plant Science. "I can't think of anyone I admired and respected more than Dan; he was unfailingly kind, incredibly thoughtful, hard working and did so much to support and guide our students," she said. "Our landscape contracting program is one of the best in the country because of his leadership and dedication to excellence."

Stearns led the development of eight courses in the curriculum, having taught or co-taught five of the core courses annually. He also engaged students in landscape construction projects, providing opportunities to develop technical, critical-thinking and project-management skills.

In all, his students participated in 39 hands-on projects to create or improve landscaped spaces on campus, including the Hintz Alumni Garden, and in the surrounding community. Stearns also co-organized annual student trips to visit landscape companies, nurseries and public gardens in the mid-Atlantic region.

He was a long-time co-adviser of the Penn State Horticulture Club and Penn State's National Association of Landscape Professionals Competition Team, a subgroup of the club that participates in the annual National Collegiate Landscape Competition.

One of Stearns' teaching philosophies was to be respectful of students and find out what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. "They all had a curiosity and a level of energy that was impressive," said Stearns in an interview following his retirement. "The most satisfaction is seeing how our alums are contributing to the profession, the environment and quality of life for others. Teaching was a dream job for me."

And he was a dream professor for more than 1,000 students who came through the program over the years. One of those students was Tu Bui, a 2009 graduate now employed as a designer at Eichenlaub Inc., a landscape contracting company in Pittsburgh.

Bui recalled how Stearns would start his 8 a.m. class with music to "wake us up." In addition to the course content, Stearns provided life lessons to the students, advising them to "work hard and work smart" and enjoy the company of family and friends. Most of all, Stearns encouraged them to "smile," Bui remembered.

"The program that Dan started and built goes far beyond the Tyson Building and the University," Bui said. "His greatest legacy is the people he has taught and inspired and who are spread across our nation. I will forever be grateful for his teachings but also inspired by the way he carried himself each day until the last."

Stearns prioritized connecting students with firms recruiting graduates and interns, increasing the number of firms visiting the program from two or three a year to 35 or more. At the college's annual career fair, landscape recruiters often outnumbered other industry representatives, observed Dan Eichenlaub, president of Eichenlaub Inc.

"He invited people from the industry, including me, to share their thoughts on what skills his graduates should possess and did that often over the years to make sure his graduates were the most sought-after and successful in the industry," said Eichenlaub, who employs many Penn State graduates.

While Stearns did not seek recognition for his work -- he said his reward was the success of students and the industry -- he received numerous accolades. In 2003, he was named a Harbaugh Faculty Scholar in recognition of his creativity in cultivating new curricula. Three years later, he was named J. Franklin Styer Professor of Horticultural Botany, acknowledging his contributions to research and teaching.

In 2015, he received the Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching. In 2019, he was named the Outstanding Educator of the Year by the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

Following his retirement, Stearns continued to support the industry by helping to create a company, LandOpt, which raises the business performance of independent landscape contractors.

"Dan was a game changer and visionary who helped a cottage industry transform into professionally operated businesses," Eichenlaub said. "Dan worked to better the landscaping industry -- one student and business at a time -- and did it in a quiet but impactful way. His legacy lives on in the many lives he enriched. He is profoundly missed."

While his professional contributions left a lasting mark on his students, the industry and the University, Stearns' greatest love was his family. Among his survivors are his wife, Melinda Morgan, whom he married in 1977, sons Andrew and Evan, daughters-in-law Lindsey and Kellie, and grandchildren Hannah, Reid, Quinn and Sydney.

In recognition of Stearns' commitment to education, Eichenlaub and his wife, Barbara, pledged $100,000 in 2018 to establish the Dan T. Stearns Landscape Contracting Program Endowment, which provides funds for student enrichment activities. Donations in his memory can be made to the fund.

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