A vibrant canvas of roses, lilacs and other flowering and fragrant shrubs greets students and visitors on West Cardinal Boulevard as they make their way past the otherwise ordinary Planning, Design and Construction Building. A plaque installed on the exterior wall above the garden indicates its purpose:
“Landscaping in memory of Stephen J. Cotton, Assistant Director Planning, Design & Construction. 1991-2016.”
Cotton, a longtime employee at UofL, passed away unexpectedly on June 7 at his home. He was not only the assistant director of UPDC, he was also a member of UofL’s Staff Senate, a U Club board member, a faculty adviser for the U.S. Green Building Council UofL Student Chapter, and a mentor to students and colleagues alike.
“Everybody knew him. He would always help students if they needed his help for information on a paper or assistance on a project,” said Karen Blake, UPDC program coordinator. “Stephen was always into plants, flowers and landscaping. We thought it was fitting to remember him this way.”
The Memorial Scape honoring Cotton was completed on Oct. 28. It was an effort of the UPDC staff, employees from Physical Plant and U Club, and Cotton’s family. Aaron Boggs, assistant director of Physical Plant, and Greg Schetler, supervisor of the Grounds Shop, donated shrubs and labor.
“We had so much help that we thought it would take us all afternoon, but it only took us about two hours to finish. It was such a team effort, and a team-building effort. It also brought closure for his colleagues and, most importantly, for the family,” said Ken Dietz, director of UPDC.
Dietz hired Cotton in 1991. At the time, Cotton was working as a project manager for a local architecture firm tapped to help with a campus project.
“I saw that we worked well together so when he applied, he was already a fit,” Dietz said. He described their working relationship as “family-like at times.”
“Sometimes we worked together well, sometimes we didn’t. But Stephen tried to take every project and make the final result have even greater value,” he said. “This loss really hurt us.”
Dietz notes the serendipitous timing of Cotton’s hire. At the time, UofL was going through what he calls a “renaissance.” Having been added to the state system in the 1970s meant that campus had expanded significantly in the 1980s to accommodate more students.
“In the 1990s and 2000s, we spent more time focused on the details from that renaissance and Stephen was an advocate for all of that,” Dietz said. “We had to step up our appearance all over campus and he knew the right people to make those projects a reality. The profile of the university really went up at that time.”
Cotton worked on a bevy of major projects all over campus, including Baxter I and II, the Dental School addition, the Interactive Teaching Lab at the School of Medicine, the 620 Garage, the Shumaker Research Building and more. But it was the Clinical Translational Research Building downtown that Dietz calls Cotton’s signature project.
It was the largest LEED Gold certified research building in the country at the time of its completion in 2009.
“We couldn’t settle on whether or not to build it certified, but he knew the timing was right and had the support. Since then, there have been 11 other (LEED-certified buildings) built on campus,” Dietz said.
The Memorial Scape honoring Cotton features Knock Out roses, Korean spice viburnums, lilac bushes, and more. This was the first memorial landscaping project done by UPDC. The previous landscaping in front of the building was the original from the 1980s.
“It was past mature and out of control,” Dietz said. “Stephen even used to bring things in from his own yard to try to make it better.”