Taking Care of Hallowed Ground

The extraordinary caretakers of Hayward Field, Karessa Barnett and Ron Perkins, have worked together for 24 years. (TrackTown photo by Joshua Gurnick)

EUGENE, Ore. – By his own count, Ron Perkins figures he has mowed the infield grass at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus more than 1,300 times.

Out of season, it’s a two-hour job.

But when the Ducks get down to the business of running, jumping and throwing for real during the outdoor track and field season each spring, his special “competition cut” takes nearly four hours to complete.

And that doesn’t account for the subsequent edging, blowing, aeration, fertilization and watering, all of which combine to keep the infield grass at the fabled venue in pristine condition year-round.

For Perkins, the 58-year-old facility manager at Hayward Field, it’s a labor of love.

His responsibilities go far beyond mowing the grass, of course, and he takes a certain amount of pride whenever travelers from afar go out of their way to pay homage to what is considered hallowed ground in U.S. track and field.

“When this place is full of fans, with all that energy and excitement, there’s nothing like it,” Perkins said.

“But for me, I like the quiet. When I’m by myself early in the morning, reflecting on all the big events we have here, that’s when I realize just how special Hayward Field is.”

It takes nearly four hours for Ron Perkins to finish the “competition cut” at Hayward Field. (TrackTown photo by Joshua Gurnick)

It takes nearly four hours for Ron Perkins to finish the “competition cut” at Hayward Field. (TrackTown photo by Joshua Gurnick)

Perkins was born and raised in Eugene. A 1975 graduate of South Eugene High School, he won a state javelin title for the Axemen during his junior year in 1974 under the tutelage of legendary head coach Harry Johnson and throws coach Mac Wilkins.

He joined his older brother, Rich, on the Oregon track and field team in the fall of 1975. An elbow injury derailed his javelin career, but he was still able to contribute in the hammer throw with a fourth-place finish at the 1978 Pac-8 championships.

His brother, meanwhile, was third in the hammer at the 1976 NCAA championships.

“My brother encouraged me and showed me how to throw the hammer,” Perkins said. “He told me, ‘anybody can throw the hammer,’ which is not true.”

As a student-athlete at Oregon, Perkins secured a summer job with the UO facilities crew. He kept coming back each summer, and over the years, after a series of promotions, he worked his way up to his current position.

It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.

“I want to keep the legend going,” said Perkins, the 2009 recipient of the Oregon Track & Field Hall of Fame Award. “I get a little emotional talking about this place because of my brother, and everyone else that has competed here. I know how important (Hayward Field) is to them.”

For the past 24 years, Karessa Barnett has worked side-by-side with Perkins.

A 1981 graduate of Thurston High School, she joined the UO facilities summer crew in 1991, and just like Perkins, she never left, eventually becoming assistant facilities manager.

When Barnett first arrived at Oregon, there wasn’t a single flower to be found at Hayward Field. Today, the yellow blossoms which frame the steeplechase pit, and the rose bushes planted in front of the Bowerman Building and Powell Plaza, have become iconic images of the 96-year-old stadium.

“Playing with flowers is my favorite thing to do,” Barnett said. “I remember we were getting ready for track season one day, and I asked Ron, ‘Hey, can I put some flowers over here?’ He said yes, but only if I take care of them. It kind of blossomed from there.”

There wasn’t a single flower at Hayward Field before Karessa Barnett began working at the stadium in 1991. (TrackTown photo by Joshua Gurnick)

There wasn’t a single flower at Hayward Field before Karessa Barnett began working at the stadium in 1991. (TrackTown photo by Joshua Gurnick)

The 51-year-old Barnett has numerous duties at Hayward Field. She takes care of the Bowerman Building, helps with the grounds, makes sure the work crews have everything they need, and assists Perkins in a variety of chores as they prepare for the “load-in and load-outs” of all the big meets.

“This truly is a special place,” she said. “I wasn’t a track fan when I got here. I didn’t know anything about track and field, but I’ve learned so much, and done so many different things, I truly do enjoy everything that we do.”

Her favorite moment at Hayward Field occurred just a few weeks ago when Perkins was honored by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) with a special ceremony at the state high school track and field championships.

The previous year, Perkins had casually mentioned to OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett that he had lost his state championship medal and the OSAA decided to present him with a new one at this year’s meet.

“That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen here,” Barnett said. “It was really touching to see how much people cared. That’s why this is such a good place to work.”

Nobody appreciates the hard work and attention to detail which Perkins and Barnett bring to their jobs on a daily basis more than Lance Deal. The 1996 Olympic silver medalist in the hammer throw is in his fifth year as Director of Track & Field Venues and Program Support for the University of Oregon.

“I don’t think Hayward Field belongs to anybody more than it does to Ron,” Deal said. “The quiet pride that he has in what he does is really an inspiration to me. He knows more about Hayward Field than anybody else on earth.

“And the same goes for Karessa. Everything she touches is made better. She works every day to keep the Bowerman Building looking like a new building … If you spend any time with those two, and watch what they do, it’s an amazing thing.”

With a major renovation of Hayward Field coming soon after the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, both Perkins and Barnett are excited to see what the “new chapter” will bring.

And, no matter what changes might occur, Deal insists that these two extraordinary caretakers will always be an integral part of the storied facility.

“Everybody talks about the spirit and magic of Hayward Field,” Deal said. “How it’s all about the fans and the athletes that have competed here, and that is absolutely true. But I also think at its very core, a lot of that spirit can be found in those two.”