By Lauren Randall
Judy Brittenum retired from the University of Arkansas in May 2016, after a 27-year teaching career here.
She left campus as an associate professor in the department of landscape architecture. Her guidance, passion for education and involvement in her field had a significant impact on her students.
“Students are the lifeblood of our future, and a teacher affects eternity,” Brittenum said. “When you look back on all the lives you’ve touched, it’s self-fulfilling, but at the same time it’s a kind of giving that you really can’t get other ways.”
Brittenum began her career here after getting a Master of Landscape Architecture from Louisiana State University and owning a firm in Baton Rouge. As an undergraduate student, she had studied theater, communications and English literature, but her love for horticulture did not develop until later in life.
She used her communications and theater backgrounds to prepare her students for design presentations and real-world experience. This helps students understand the audience and client, vocalize a design, and understand the facts behind it, she said. Students learn to communicate with the client and sell their projects.
“We video each student,” Brittenum said. “They present their projects in front of jurors, and then we have a little show and tell. I serve them popcorn, and they watch themselves. They get such a charge out of it, and they learn something about nonverbal communication.” The design students are then recorded again to see how they have improved.
Brittenum challenged her students to create compelling designs, and she was the first teacher to lead a landscape architecture study abroad program. Alumnus Heath Kuszak remembers her as an engaging professor who provided students an insight into the real world rather than just the classroom setting.
“She showed me how planting design can really be a tool in an artist’s tool kit to create beautiful landscapes,” Kuszak said. “Learning how to think about plants in the abstract, using their attributes and then finding a specific species to fit those attributes is the greatest thing I learned from Judy.”
Brittenum’s interactive teaching style and knowledge of other subjects helped students to become more well-rounded landscape architects. Alumna Kathryn Dunn said that Brittenum’s guidance helped her grow as a designer.
“She let me explore ideas – good and bad – and develop my own language of the landscape,” Dunn said. “She taught me how to communicate my ideas thoughtfully and pushed me to rethink and rework things I thought were good, and elevate them to a place I didn’t know existed.”
Brittenum’s ability to connect and build relationships with students and faculty was an important aspect in her career. She had a rocking chair in her office that made school feel a little bit more like home, and attracted many students.
“I’ve had faculty members come in, too. They’ll say things like, ‘You mind if I just sit in here for a minute?’ I’ve had people in here in tears; I’ve had people laughing – and all in that rocking chair,” Brittenum said. “When I think back about one thing or something that tied me to the students and other people it would be that kind of personal connection. That is what’s important, that personal attachment that I have to students.”
Dunn remembers sitting in Brittenum’s rocking chair during her undergraduate years, and found her teacher and mentor to also be a friend.
“I loved going to her office in Memorial Hall because it allowed me to shed my school self and relax from the stresses of studio,” Dunn said. “She made Arkansas feel like home until it eventually was.”
Alumnus Billy Fleming also has fond memories of the rocking chair, especially when it came to important life decisions such as graduate school. Brittenum sat with Fleming for hours weighing the pros and cons of that next step.
“Before I left, she sent an email to every one of her friends in each program demanding that they meet with me during my visits – something I never even asked her to do. Judy was the fiercest advocate for students that I’ve ever met,” Fleming said.
Relationships were an important part of Brittenum’s career as a professor, and, outside of students and faculty, she drew on her connections in other areas of her work. One of Brittenum’s roles in the landscape architecture department was developing a relationship as a liaison with Verna Cook Garvan, a benefactor of the landscape architecture department. Garvan donated 210 acres of land to the university, to establish what is now Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs.
“We developed a friendship that won’t go away, and I did a lot of things with her, not the least of which is just talk to her. I was down there in the summers a lot,” Brittenum said of Garvan. “We talked about the future of the garden and all of that, but she was a hard person to get to know. She was a very private person, and so, being a woman, I think I was able to do some things.”
As part of Brittenum’s longtime association with Garvan Gardens, she also served on both the Advisory Board and Architecture Review Board.
Closer to home, she served as faculty advisor to the American Society of Landscape Architecture student chapter for most of her tenure teaching. She also has served as faculty advisor for the United Methodist Wesley Foundation for the past two years, and she continues to be a member of the Washington County Historical Society Board of Directors.
On the national level, Brittenum has devoted much time as a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and she has held office in almost every position except for national president.
After spending the last 27 years teaching, Brittenum plans to fill her time visiting her children and friends, and enjoying a gap year.
“I will miss students tremendously,” Brittenum said. “I hope they will miss me some, but it is very rewarding to work with students – I think because you just want give them everything you have while they will still listen to you.”