Minot Parks head greenskeeper retires today

Some eras pass with few the wiser of having lived them, and for people living in Minot the retirement of Kevin Rubbelke may mark such a passing.

“I’ll be done next Monday,” the city’s lead groundskeeper said cheerfully in an interview, finishing today after 29 years of full-time service with the Minot Parks Department, the last 15 of those spent in its gardening and horticulture section.

Sipping at a Mountain Dew and talking shop at the greenhouse, Rubbelke seemed as though he could seamlessly recollect every square foot of ground in Minot’s park system: every fixture, every garbage can, every task that needed doing and how best to do it. Instantly likable and described by his peers as “tireless” on the job, Rubbelke has invested an enormous amount of personal effort into bettering the Minot community.

His father had grown up on a farmstead south of Des Lacs, but after marrying moved to Minot, where Rubbelke was born and raised. In school he discovered a knack for math and science. “It just clicked,” he said. “I took physics because I couldn’t take chemistry as a junior.”

After high school he attended Minot State University, were he continued these studies with a major in biology. It was as a student that he found his niche in Minot’s parks system.

“My sister-in-law worked part time at the zoo,” telling him about an available part-time opportunity. Hopping on the chance, “I started working part time that fall,” in 1980, at the ticket counter. He recalled the days when the money all in cash was crammed into a tackle box, sometimes so full by the day’s end that the lid wouldn’t close.

He began working full time at Roosevelt Park Zoo July 1, 1984, hired on as a keeper.

“What you learned then once you became a zookeeper is how to feed all the animals,” alternating their foodstuffs from day to day and rearranging their water during the winter to prevent it from freezing over. Some feeding was more interesting than others, Rubbelke recalling how they had to feed the zoo’s two alligators. Already quite old by this time, bits of chicken were offered to them from the end of a broom handle.

In addition to feeding, “you learned to watch on all the different hoof stock,” he said, being on the lookout for signs of pregnancy. He recalled the time when he was asked to restrain a llama during a birthing. The veterinarian had requested Rubbelke in particular, because “she knew I wouldn’t let go, no matter what.” The difficulty was in separating the female from its mate, a somewhat enraged male.

“We managed to pull the baby all right,” he concluded, albeit with a coating of lamoid spit and froth.

Not all births went so well, however. He recalled one time when he was assisting the birth of a zebra. The mare miscarried and very nearly died, with the foal followed along by her internal organs. The veterinarian had to push them back inside and sew the animal back up.

“She was fine afterward,” he added, giving birth to a number of foals in subsequent years.

Not just the hoofed creatures, but the primates are also occasionally imbued with each other, and Rubbelke’s gibbon story ended as depressingly as the zebra. One day while on his rounds he noticed the primate scratching frantically, trying to induce birth. “She could tell something was wrong,” he said. Keepers had to race inside to restrain her before she could cause an awful injury. The baby turned out stillborn, Rubbelke explaining that it had strangled on its own umbilical cord.

There were a few close encounters during Rubbelke’s time as a keeper.

“When I first started, I was in charge of the feline house,” not only for feeding and cleaning, but also assisting during surgeries. “We worked on a tiger one time,” he recalled, a female tiger. The zoo was having it spayed in accordance with government regulations. Several keepers and doctors were there in the enclosure while the tiger was anesthetized, with an administrator filming the procedure for research purposes.

“We’re about halfway through the operation and she stood right up,” he said, sending them running as fast as their legs could carry them except for the man busy operating the camera, who rather belatedly noticed he was alone in the pen with the drowsy tiger, which fortunately dropped back to sleep. There were other tales, such as a close encounter with an under-sedated bull elk, but none particularly pleasant.

“I was hoping to get on Fish and Game,” he admitted, a career path that was never realized. By the mid-1990s, he “felt I would be a zookeeper the rest of my life,” with little prospect of rising any higher within the zoo system.

But during the course of his duties as a keeper he had been earning a good reputation among other city departments, which is why park systems director Leo Brunner approached him at the end of August 1998 with a job prospect as head groundskeeper.

The new position would be a step up in responsibility, and Rubbelke would have to be certified by the state in order to spray chemicals. Preparing for the examinations, he said “I was so worried.” But with his background in chemistry and previous work experience he scored in the 90s on all the tests. After that, it was just a matter of becoming acquainted with the equipment, as well as getting to know all the various facilities.

“You learn,” he said, recalling his first encounter with the spools of irrigation hosing, which twice became a tangled clot of kinks and knots when he tried to reel them in. As said, he learned, before long becoming invaluable to the department.

“He represents the best of Minot Park Department in every way,” said Steve Wharton, the city’s horticulturist. Wharton and Rubbelke have worked together for so long that he said they are nearly running on the same mental wavelengths. When their veteran groundskeeper leaves with his voluminous knowledge, Wharton thinks he will difficult if not impossible to replace.

The secret to Rubbelke’s on-the-job efficiency has been a combination of time maximization and using the weather to best advantage.

“You do what you can,” explaining that every workday, “I get up before sunrise, and check The Weather Channel.”

Taking mosquito spraying as an example, he explained “you’re looking for lower wind” and dry conditions. On the other hand, storm clouds on the horizon bode well for fertilizing city lawns, rainwater being not only free but also better for the grass than municipal water sources. The filtration and sanitizing processes city water undergoes makes it good for drinking, but Rubbelke warns that it will dry out one’s grass more quickly.

“The biggest thing is you work with your hands,” he said. “Everything you do.” As lead groundskeeper, a big part of his job is keeping Minot’s grounds green and pest-free. “We trim them, mow them. We fertilize them.”

Every spring he dons his pack-mounted sprayer and tracks down weedy patches and stagnant water, which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. He said that they annually switch up the poisons they use, so the insects cannot build up a tolerance to a particular toxin.

Groundswork and park system maintenance are neither easy nor necessarily cleanly work. “When I started, we got the hepatitis shots three of them,” Rubbelke remembered, for protection from the health risks involved in cleaning public restrooms. There are other health concerns with handling various chemicals and fertilizers, and everything has its protocols and standards to follow.

Another task is collecting garbage from the city’s many bins, busywork that fills in time while spray or irrigation equipment are left doing their thing. In the summer months this can actually become a real chore in itself, with increased facilities usage meaning increased garbage. At the Hammond Park courts, for instance, there will often be heaping bags of plastic water bottles following youth clinics held there, which need to be individually emptied out and condensed down before transport.

The extra work never bothers him; quite the contrary, he cheerfully noted. “At least there’s someone teaching these kids basketball.”

Toward the end of summer and into early autumn, collection gets a bit more complicated with swarms of bees scavenging garbage for sugar.

“It’ll just be unreal,” he said, crossing himself. Somewhat surprisingly, he adds, “All the years I’ve been here, I’ve never been stung,” which he explains is largely due to a healthy dose of caution on his part. There are sprays made available for groundskeepers to use, but he forgoes these. From his perspective, it is impossible at the time to distinguish between common wasps and a local keeper’s honey bees, so Rubbelke goes by a mantra of live and let live.

With the first snowfall, Rubbelke loans his labors out to the maintenance department, clearing the city’s 10 outdoor rinks and shoveling snow with the lads.

“I’d always help the guys out,” he said, city work crews augmented with part-time help. “The reason these rinks are nice is because you’re up here helping,” he would tell them.

Once winter snows begin to recede he would take up sandbagging at Souris Valley Golf Course. This past March, he reckoned they had bagged and stacked between 2,000 and 3,000 bags around the greens there. One little project at a time, Rubbelke has become a fixture of the parks department, and by extension Minot’s public places.

“What’s next is scary,” Wharton admitted. “It will certainly be a challenge without him.”

The department arranged a farewell luncheon for Rubbelke last Wednesday, presenting him with a leather jacket and an outpouring of thanks.

“I just can’t say enough good things about him,” Wharton continued. “Everyone loved working with him. We’ll miss him terribly.”

What’s next for Rubbelke?

Work, of course. After retirement, there will be a number of relatives’ homes for him to work on, in addition to his own.

“There were so many of us flooded,” he said. “One of the nice things about having such a big family” is having so many hands available to help each other out, such as his electrician nephew. With the exception of a brother living in Texas, his other three brothers and four sisters all live in the Minot area, most with grown or nearly-grown families themselves.

Work relationships have been of help, too, with coworkers from the maintenance department able to assist with a number of projects, from pouring cement to replacing rotten joists.

“We started to re-side our mom’s house,” he said, counting out on his fingers the different steps that will go into the repairs, optimistic of the work ahead. The flood experience has also been an opportunity to spend more time with his family, staying as he did with a sibling’s family at their home in Surrey. “I help my nieces and nephews with their homework,” in particular the subjects he grew up enjoying, math and science. It’s come in handy.”

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to mdnews@minotdailynews.com.)