Celebrating a Turfgrass Ambassador: John Williams Bids Adieu to Oakland Plantation

Just a week after celebrating his 65th birthday, a man well-known in the North Carolina turfgrass industry, John Williams, retired from Oakland Plantation after working as the farm manager for 20 years. He started his role at the farm in May 2003 after spending the previous two decades as a golf course superintendent.

Oakland Plantation’s President, Rick Neisler reflected on his time working with Williams as his right-hand man and is thankful for all the strides and memories they’ve made together.

“John is an ambassador in the turf industry so it was good to have that kind of person on our team. It was a plus-plus with his background. Now he’s retiring with 20 years in the golf business and 20+ in the sod business. He’s probably one of the most well-rounded turf professionals you could probably ever find. He’s worked hard and is ready to enjoy retirement so I’m happy for him,” Rick said.

Rick’s son and Oakland Plantation’s General Manager, Will Neisler, agreed with his dad that John is knowledgeable, well-spoken, friendly and always represented Oakland as best as one could.

John Williams moving pallets.

“He was dedicated to the farm in a way that you cannot hire someone to be, or even train someone to be.  It’s just a part of who he is to take his job seriously and to go above and beyond, time and again. He wore many hats in his time here, and likely no one person is going to be able to fill all of those roles. Working with him leaves those of us left behind better and more able to fill the voids created by his absence. Hopefully, with some luck, we are able to find someone who is even half as dedicated as he was,” Will said.

Williams’s day-to-day managing of Oakland Plantation included overseeing all of the sod production and working alongside its 25 employees. He would start his day by getting the crew out in the morning and making sure everything was going in the right direction and looking over the agronomics for the different varieties of grass they grow. Williams assumes he’ll miss the sense of responsibility and will have to let go of worrying about what’s happening at the farm but is excited about retirement.

“I’ve been very fortunate. Everyone at Oakland Plantation, Rick, Will and the entire Neisler family have been so wonderful to work with. My family and I are very fortunate for the turfgrass industry as a whole — it has been very good to me. I’ve been growing or maintaining grass since 1974 in some capacity,” Williams said.

Rick said he was fortunate for the knowledge and network relationships that Williams brought from his experience as a golf superintendent to the farm. Back then, golf jobs were a really large part of Oakland Plantation’s business so Rick considered him the total package when he came on board.

Over the past 22 years, Rick and Williams have had very few disagreements and have made great strides in the business together. “I just can’t say enough about him. He’s going to be tough to replace and we’re going through that process now,” Rick shared.

“The best day I ever had was probably the day I hired him and maybe one of the saddest days I’ll have will be when he leaves. He was just a great employee. He took care of everything which freed me up to do what I needed to do. It worked out just great and he’s been a pleasure.”

The Oakland Plantation staff pictured together on John Williams last day of work at the sod farm, May 26, 2023. (John is pictured in center wearing a black vest.)

An Impressive Career

Williams’s career started in high school when he first started working on a golf course. He attended NC State University and graduated with a turf degree in 1978 and then went on to work on several golf courses. He was the golf course superintendent for several years at Pinehurst No. 6 and No. 7, and even grew the grass through new construction at Pinehurst No. 7. Next, he went to Keith Hills Country Club in Buies Creek, NC until he came to Oakland Plantation in 2003.

Williams recalls one of the first mentors in the golf industry he worked with was Butch Sheffield who impressed on him to give back to the industry and to try and help others. “Also, to first look after yourself and your family for the long-term, but to get involved in the industry, which has been most of my service. I’ve served on just about every committee you can imagine,” Williams said.

He served on the Golf Course Superintendents of America Association (GCSAA) national committee, the local Triangle Turf Association and he served as president of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendent Association (CGCSA) in 1997. “My shining moment as president of the Carolinas was that I was president the year the association moved the conference to the Convention Center in Myrtle Beach and it just took off from there.”

John Williams (far right) pictured with the Associate Dean for Research at NC State, Steve Lommel; Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis, NC State turfgrass breeder; Tobey Wagner, president of Sod Solutions and Al Wooten, owner of Quality Turf as the TRNC program began in 2016.

When he got to Oakland, Williams served as president of the North Carolina Sod Producers Association (NC SPA) for two years (2014-15). “The NC SPA is a really good group of farms. It’s not a large organization but everybody gets along and it’s a good group of people. We enjoy getting together at least once a year to share our thoughts and concerns in the industry,” he said.

He explained one thing he’s most proud of from serving as the President of NC SPA was helping navigate the negotiation process with NC State and Sod Solutions to launch the Turfgrass Research North Carolina which has grown to 16 sod farm members. The TRNC supports the funding and research of new and improved turfgrass lines out of NC State’s Turfgrass Breeding program.

Most recently, for the last four years, he’s been on the Board of Directors of the NC State Turf Center, which helps oversee all the turf research money they’ve gotten from NC State and allocates it over time. Williams shared that it’s been exciting to see the fruits of the labor from NC State’s Turfgrass Breeding program come to fruition as they’ve released both Lobo™ Zoysiagrass and Sola St. Augustinegrass in the past two years. He complimented turfgrass breeder, Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis, and her team for their hard work to make that possible.

“The new latest and greatest grasses coming out of NC State, my alma mater, have been really rewarding. It’s important that the program continues to succeed. You’ve got to keep progressing into the next generation,” he added.

Williams sees the turfgrass industry continuing to become much more mechanized and technical in the next ten years. He has utilized some GPS-integrated systems for sprayers and thinks that things will only continue along those trends, especially as the labor pool shrinks and farms find themselves relying on automation. “The bottom line is still all about growing good quality turfgrass. There are a lot of new ideas and ways that will make it a lot easier in the long run. I think there will also be a lot of new grasses, not only out of NC State but all over the country, and they will continue to bring out improved varieties.”

Pictured (from left) are Sod Solutions SE Territory Manager Whit Jacobs, John Williams, Rick Neisler and Will Neisler showing off some new Latitude 36® Bermudagrass and Innovation® Zoysia hats.

Sod Solutions President, Tobey Wagner, shared his appreciation for John’s hard work at Oakland Plantation and within the turfgrass industry over the years. “I admire and respect John’s farming expertise and leadership. He’s been an example of showing others hard work and dedication to excellence. His legacy and footprint of influence will last for generations. I think John’s most admirable characteristic is his character and faith. He is a man who demonstrates the life of a Godly man,” Wagner said. 

Farm Manager’s Farewell

“It’s an exciting time but it’s also time for me to move on to a new chapter of my life and let someone younger come along,” Williams said. He and his wife, Rhonda, have big plans to kick off his retirement. They have purchased a large motor home vehicle and the second week of June they take off on a cross-country trip together until the late fall. Along the way, they plan to visit family in Missouri and head west to see a number of National Parks and sites until they return to the Carolinas in October or November.

Rhonda and John Williams with the motor home vehicle they purchased for their cross-country trip.

“We are both fortunate to have good health and we want to enjoy this while we are able to. We’re starting a new chapter and looking forward to it,” Williams said. They have two daughters and four grandchildren that they both look forward to spending more time with together in retirement.

Oakland Plantation employees pictured enjoying a hunt together.

Ironically, when asked about their most cherished shared experience, Rick and Williams both fondly recalled the day they first crossed paths — an unforgettable occasion that coincided with a turkey hunting excursion serving as Williams’ job interview. Reflecting on that memorable day, Rick reminisced, “He came down and we turkey hunted. We didn’t get a turkey that day but he spent the day with me going around. I knew it was a good fit then and it’s just been a good fit ever since. We’ve done so many things together, collaborated on countless projects and have created too many good memories together to mention,” Rick said.

As Williams expressed his sentiments about his tenure at Oakland, he remarked, “My time here has been very fulfilling. I’ve devoted my entire career to growing grass, and Oakland has provided me with the ideal platform to enjoy many of my other passions, such as deer, duck, bear, and turkey hunting. The Neisler family is really involved in wildlife and they have given me the opportunity to enjoy that together. It’s ironic that my initial encounter with Rick in 2003 was, in fact, spent turkey hunting.”

Williams’ last day at Oakland Plantation was celebrated with a fish fry and fellowship with friends and colleagues at the sod farm. The gathering served as a fitting tribute, with heartfelt wishes for a fulfilling retirement and collective appreciation for a career well-served.

This article was written by Cecilia Brown.

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