Longtime Landscape Guru Leaves Lasting Visual Legacy


SOCORRO, N.M. July 29, 2012 – Karyn DeBont did, indeed, bloom where she was planted.

When she first arrived in Socorro in 1983, she admits that her initial reaction to the central New Mexico landscape was less than enthusiastic: “It was hot, dry and brown.”


Karyn DeBont is retiring as associate director of Facilities Management. Her retirement and farewell party is Friday, July 29.


        In time, DeBont, Associate Director of Facilities Management and longtime manager of New Mexico Tech’s greenhouse and grounds, came to appreciate the beauty of the state’s native plants and their hardiness, particularly in the drought that has persisted for years.

The fruits of her labors are evidenced by the flower beds across campus, particularly those on the street corners that border the campus, and the more than 1500 trees she selected and planted with her crew over the past quarter-century-plus.

And this Friday, starting at 2 p.m. at Macey Center, New Mexico Tech will recognize DeBont for her 29 years of service with a retirement party in her honor. Friday also marks her last day as a Tech employee.

In the Beginning

When DeBont first moved to New Mexico in 1982, she commuted to Albuquerque to take courses in landscaping and to familiarize herself with native plants.

“Plant identification classes at the University of Iowa don’t prepare one for plant identification in New Mexico,” said DeBont with a smile.

At that time, the old Tin Can was still standing, Campus Drive was a thoroughfare, and the Physical Plant was tucked behind Weir Hall.

DeBont spent her first year at Tech as the secretary for a now-defunct Technological Innovations Center before joining the Physical Plant crew under then-Director Jim Shaffner.

The timing was perfect. Shaffner was building a greenhouse. Every year since, DeBont has overseen the seeding of thousands of annual and perennial flowers in that greenhouse, as well as planting 400-500 poinsettias at Christmas.

“When you grow from seed, you can get many more kinds of flowering annuals, making for a lot of color intensity and diversity,” said DeBont, adding that she considers a number of variables in designing flower beds, such as color, texture, and plant shape.       

She is, indeed, an Iowa native, having been born in Keswick, a town so small that her high school senior class joined seniors from four other small towns for a graduating class of 49 students in 1969.

Her Midwestern work ethic was established early. After her high school graduation, DeBont worked full-time as a secretary in Iowa City, while taking college classes when she could.

In financing her own college education, DeBont said she made sure she got her money’s worth.

“I was the one in the front row asking all the questions,” she said.

As a result, it took her about a dozen years to earn her diploma – but the experience proved invaluable.

Her husband, Dr. Dave Johnson, geoscience professor emeritus and the former dean of graduate studies, was already living in Socorro when DeBont moved here. Johnson retired two years ago.

Where DeBont carved out a career in landscaping, Johnson discovered his life’s work in the layers and layers of rock that reflect New Mexico’s geologic history.

Beautification Efforts         

DeBont used her talents not only to benefit the University, but also for the Socorro community itself, through outreach efforts as a charter member of the city’s Beautification Committee. DeBont was involved with efforts to landscape the medians on California Street, and reinvigorate the city Plaza.

A certified arborist, DeBont is a longtime member of the New Mexico Urban Forest Council and serves on the Tree Planting Advisory Committee which oversees the State Forestry Re-Leaf grant program.

A number of local entities have benefitted from the Re-Leaf program, including Socorro Public Schools, Socorro Mental Health, Tresco, Clarke Field, the fairgrounds, and the Tech campus.

She credits her hard-working crew for their efforts in maintaining the campus, especially after the freeze in early 2011.

“It was a big setback,” she said. “We’re still removing dead plant material from the freeze.”

In some ways, the freeze was probably a good thing in learning that some plants won’t survive sub-freezing temperatures, and in terms of how to make the necessary adjustments in landscapes.

“This is a hard place to grow plants – you’re asking a lot of plants to grow in this climate, which is why native plants are so great,” said DeBont.

She cautions gardeners to do their homework when buying plants. “A lot of stuff that’s sold won’t make it through the winter here,” she said. “In other words, a perennial in southern California is not necessarily a perennial in Socorro, New Mexico.”

Art of a Different Nature

For DeBont, retirement means time to travel, and more time to devote to a more recent avocation – painting.

She took her first class from Midge Grace in 2000 on painting from photographs, which DeBont found very therapeutic.

In time, she took classes from other artists and found herself joining other like-minded painters in exploring the great outdoors via canvas.

“It’s interesting to paint outdoors,” said DeBont. “It’s a different experience chasing the light.”

Her work can be seen at the Curious Crow gallery next door to the Old Town Bistro; two of her works were chosen for the Masterworks show in Albuquerque last spring, and she recently won an award at a show in Ruidoso.

She is a member of the Plein Air Painters of New Mexico, a group that painted in Socorro for a week last fall. Many of its members, DeBont said, were surprised to discover that the area had so many picturesque locales.

“When you just drive through on the freeway, you don’t see the bosque cottonwoods in October, or San Lorenzo and Box canyons. One day, we painted churches, and at the church in San Acacia, a goat tried to steal our paints,” she said. “It was a great experience, one you won’t find in Santa Fe.”

Retirement and Reflection

DeBont also can paint while traveling with Johnson.

“Our vacations were always dictated by school breaks,” she said. “Now, we’ll get to travel when the rest of the United States is not taking their vacation!” Europe is one destination; another is to spend time with daughter, Audrey.

“What gets you involved in the community is when you have a child,” DeBont said of her daughter, born in 1988.

Last year, DeBont attended a Socorro City Council meeting to express her thanks for the Summer Youth Employment Program and the youngsters who were assigned to the grounds.

While she waited to speak, dozens and dozens of Socorro youth were recognized for their participation in swimming and track programs supported by the city.

“By the time I spoke, my voice was cracking, because I was so proud of my town for supporting kids like it does,” she said.

DeBont also has worked with many college students through Tech’s work-study and community service programs. She always tries to get across to the students what a great experience it is to work with the people in Facilities Management.

“These people are golden,” she said. “They work hard and they get it done.”

The greenhouse and landscape projects also afford these students a break from the rigors of the classroom. DeBont recalls one work-study student who arrived for work dressed in white, pressed Levis. He never returned.

“This is just not a white, pressed Levis kind of job,” she said.

She calls herself fortunate in working for two Tech presidents committed to maintaining a beautiful campus – former president Lattman and current president, Dr. Daniel H. López; and her two bosses – Shaffner and Yvonne Manzano-Brown, current Director of Facilities Management.

“I’m going to miss a lot of people at Tech, especially my crew,” she said. “People give me a lot of credit for the grounds, but they’re the ones doing the work.”

“The campus has so many buildings and landscapes, so there’s a lot involved,” DeBont said.

She also credits Mayor Ravi Bhasker for his commitment to city beautification. “I hit Socorro at a time when people were receptive to the kinds of things I wanted to do,” she said.

One final thought: “I’m not good at the science side of it, but it’s true that plants and trees improve the quality of life for people,” DeBont said.

She can point to her own life as proof.

– NMT –

By Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech