Dan Stearns, professor emeritus of landscape contracting at Penn State University, passed away on Nov. 6, 2021, at the age of 70. Stearns was an NALP Trailblazer and received NALP’s Educator of the Year award in 2019.
Stearns earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and his master’s degree at North Carolina State University. Before becoming a professor at Penn State in 1989, Stearns worked as a landscape architect for the New York State Department of Transportation and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in North Carolina — as well as operating his own landscape design/build firm in Massachusetts.
When he joined the Penn State faculty, he was the inaugural professor and program coordinator of the landscape contracting program at the university. Matt Owens, the financial advisor for Edward Jones and a former student of Stearns, says he was focused on teaching experiential, hands-on learning.
“He focused his curriculum around doing projects that benefited the community first,” Owens says. “I would say even family-based projects, and then other campus-related projects.”
His students participated in 39 hands-on projects to create or improve landscaped spaces on campus and in the surrounding community. Stearns also co-organized annual visits to landscape companies, nurseries and public gardens in the mid-Atlantic region.
Owens says Penn State’s landscape contracting program has been known as one of the best in the country and credits this to Stearns.
“He had so much to do with improving the level of professionalism in the industry,” Owens says.
A number of big names in the industry in the 90s were recruiting Penn State grads thanks to the program, and Edward Anewalt, LIC, president of Anewalt’s Landscape Contracting based in Bernville, Pennsylvania, says everyone in his graduating class was spoken for before graduating.
“Dan forged these relationships, not just with the students, but with the industry and absolutely partnered up students with industry,” Anewalt says.
However, Stearns wouldn’t tell a student to pick one company over another.
“Just like teaching, he never gave the answer, but he would help you understand how to get to the answer,” Anewalt says.
Anewalt was a nontraditional student and had to commute two and half hours to Penn State. He says Stearns allowing this enabled Anewalt to earn his degree. He says Stearns was very generous with his time when it came to students and always had an open-door policy.
“Even if he had his head down and he was doing something, if you knocked on his door, Dan would say, ‘Ed, what can I do for you?’” Anewalt says. “He never said, ‘Can you come back?’ He always made time.”
Anewalt says his devotion to helping students succeed was phenomenal. The students who sought Stearns out quickly recognized they’d gain not only educational wisdom, life wisdom as well.
Owens says Stearns was able to take a huge university like Penn State and boil it down to a family atmosphere.
“There’s an aura around that program that breeds success,” Owens says.
One of Stearns’s goals was to have 1,000 landscape contracting graduates. However, he was offered an early retirement in 2017 and was torn because he still wanted to see that goal reached.
When Stearns was diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma, he informed close friends like Anewalt and Owens. Anewalt says he got to visit Stearns in October and shared with him a number of projects he was working on to keep his mind off of what he was dealing with.
“If there was something that made Dan very pleased was to know that his students learned from him and more importantly applied what they learned,” Anewalt says. “That was the return on Dan’s investment.”
Stearns valued his family most in life, followed by the success of his students.
“He really challenged people to learn,” Owens says. “He wasn’t a hard guy, but he made you want to go the extra mile to do it right. The professionalism was just so amazing, and he just made it seem so effortless.”
A fond memory that both Owens and Anewalt have of Stearns is when they nominated him for the Educator of the Year award. The award was to be presented at the closing ceremonies of the National Collegiate Landscape Competition at Colorado State University that year.
Stearns had been teaching during his retirement as his replacement professor, Margaret Hoffman, had health complications. When Hoffman returned two weeks before NCLC, he wasn’t going to go because he wanted her to attend instead.
Owens and Anewalt managed to coerce Stearns to attend. When he went up on stage his family came down as part of the surprise. Anewalt says his face with tears of joy will forever be etched in his mind.
“To see Dan’s face when he saw his wife and son and grandkids there and for him to have been recognized was amazing,” Owens says.
Stearns was described as a man of integrity. He was also known to be caring, gentle, calm and soft-spoken. Owens says Stearns was the most intriguing person you’d ever want to meet.
“His legacy is his impact on so many people, so many students,” Owens says. “The landscape industry as a whole I think is so much better from him being involved and doing what he did.”
Stearns is survived by his wife, Melinda, sons Andrew and Evan, and his grandchildren Hannah, Reid, Quinn, and Sydney. At his request, in lieu of a formal service, the family will plan a spring celebration of life. Stearns asked that he be remembered by his friends, colleagues, students, and family members by enjoying special outdoor time with their loved ones. To honor his memory, donations will be accepted for the Dan T. Stearns Landscape Contracting Program Endowment in the College of Agricultural Sciences, https://raise.psu.edu/StearnsProgram.