May 30, 2017
By Mike Killeen
On your last day of work, you take a hike from your job.
On his last day of work, Tom Kroll took a hike — literally.
Kroll retired from his job as land manager of Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum and program director of Saint John’s Outdoor University May 1 with an eight-mile hike from SJU President Michael Hemesath’s residence in Collegeville Township to CSB President Mary Dana Hinton’s home in St. Joseph.
Over the (Watab) river and through the woods, Kroll and his staff - Sarah Gainey, Jenny Kutter, Kyle Rauch and Ashley Walker – marched on through snow and rain. However, Kroll went not to Grandma’s house but into retirement.
“We did it because we thought it was a fitting way to work together one last time,” Kroll said. “We have always been team orientated. I had often spent the first day with a new employee walking through the woods and talking as the orientation, so doing the same on the last day seemed logical.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kroll spent a good chunk of his final day at the office in his office — the 2,600-acre Abbey Arboretum.
Kroll said those woods and lakes are part of the culture of Saint John’s.
“It’s one of the beauties of working here. Certainly, the Benedictines feel that,” Kroll said. “It attaches permanence to the land, caring, good stewardship. The students that come here really like it – I call it the nest of nature.
“You can choose a lot of different colleges in America, but this one – and even Saint Ben’s, with all the Sister’s land around it – is trying to provide a natural setting.”
Kroll grew up on a family dairy farm near Long Prairie, Minnesota. The land was fertile, and included a good cluster of trees.
“The rest of my siblings were better at farming, and so I would volunteer to do the forestry work — cut firewood or do what was needed for the farm,” Kroll said. “Take the horse out, and cut a little wood. That got me interested in forestry. I can milk a cow, but I left that to better farmers.”
He went to the University of Minnesota, earning a degree in forestry. He worked for both the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and Alaska, and the German Forest Service, which was the birthplace of forestry as a profession. He then spent 20 years with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, focusing primarily on private forest land.
In 2001, Saint John’s beckoned. Father Paul Schwietz, OSB, served as the Abbey’s land manager for 15 years before passing away suddenly in 2000. John Geissler served as acting director until Kroll came on board in 2001. (And, in a what goes around, comes around department, Geissler has been appointed to replace Kroll.)
“His (Schwietz’s) picture still hangs in the office after all these years. It’s a picture of him in the oak savanna,” Kroll said. “He established a vision in those early years. All we did was implement the vision.
“It was really an honor to be asked to follow in those footsteps. The table was set. The Abbey and the University had already determined to use that land more intentionally. It was always used for education, but we helped expand on that vison.”
Kroll is proud of the work his staff did in expanding the environmental education program. Over 9,000 K-12 students visit the Arboretum annually, and community education efforts like Collegeville Colors and the Maple Syrup Festival attract thousands of community members each year.
He helped secure the boundaries of the Arboretum and worked to get conservation easements for the Arboretum’s neighbors to protect them from development.
“Br. Dietrich (Reinhart, OSB, president of SJU from 1991-2008) told me on my first day on the job, ‘Tom, I want you to go out and make sure in 50 years Saint John’s is not an island of green surrounded by houses and golf courses.’ And, he said work with the neighbors and figure out the Avon Hills district – that was his charge,” Kroll said.
He is also proud of his work regenerating the beautiful oaks of the Abbey Arboretum. He’s grateful for the support he received from the Abbey and Br. Benedict Leuthner, OSB, for helping implement the techniques that would be successful in the Abbey Arboretum.
Kroll has been rewarded for his efforts. Earlier this year, Kroll was named a Fellow of the Society of American Foresters (SAF). The award recognizes an SAF member for long-standing service to forestry at the local, state and national level.
Then, on May 17, he received the Fr. Vincent Tegeder, OSB/SJU Outstanding Administrator Award during the OSB/SJU Administrative Recognition Luncheon. The award recognizes service and excellence within the Saint John's administrative community - someone who embodies the spirit of Saint John's, provides quality service and makes a powerful contribution to Saint John's.
That followed his closing walk-off.
“I got to cover some of the ground that has been so meaningful to my career and to me personally one last time,” Kroll said. “Protecting land and being a good steward is my job as a forester, and at least six of those eight miles was on Abbey land, SJU land, CSB land, Sister’s land or land protected by permanent conservation easements.
“That’s land that has been stewarded for 150-plus years, and will continue to be cared for and protected far into the future,” Kroll added.