Turfgrass Field Lab Receives Generous Gift

North Carolina State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is honored to announce an estate gift from the late Stephen B. Womble to our Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Field Laboratory. 

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Stephen Womble served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1967.
Stephen Womble served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1967.

Womble was one of NC State’s first Agricultural Institute turfgrass management graduates in 1971. He spent over 40 years as a certified golf course superintendent, starting as a teenager on the construction of Croasdaile Golf Course in Durham and serving at several courses in Eastern North Carolina before retiring from Wildwood Green Golf Course in Raleigh. 

Throughout his career, Womble was a member of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendent Association, an engaged participant with the Turfgrass Council of North Carolina and a strong proponent of the university’s turfgrass program. 

He frequently interacted with turfgrass faculty like extension specialist Fred Yelverton.

“Steve was a great alumnus and a big NC State fan,” Yelverton said. “I remember walking the course at Wildwood Green with him several times. He was proud of our turf program and worked closely with us to improve his courses.”

Extension Specialist Fred Yelverton presents at a Turfgrass Field Day.
Extension Specialist Fred Yelverton presents weed management updates at a Turfgrass Field Day.

Womble was an avid Wolfpack fan, regularly attending home football games and serving for six years (during retirement) as superintendent at NC State University Club’s six-hole par three course.

Chip Watson is the General Manager of the Lonnie Poole Golf Course and worked with Womble for over 15 years. 

“Steve was the best I have ever seen at ‘fact gathering’ and studying a situation,” Watson said.  “He wanted to make sure he wasn’t making a mistake!  He took his job very seriously and was extremely dependable.”

Stephen Womble served as an Army medic during the Vietnam War.
Womble was a proud veteran serving as an Army medic during the Vietnam War.

In addition to remembering his iconic red Mercedes at every Wolfpack tailgate event, colleagues also knew him as a big-hearted man.

“Steve really cared for people and wanted to make the most of every day,” said Keith Ward of Southern Seeds, Inc. “He was also a workout fanatic. When a friend at his gym developed cancer, Steve cooked them meals for months. He was a good man.”

Because of a thoughtful gift through his estate plans, Womble also leaves a professional legacy. After his passing in December 2021, the NC State Turfgrass Field Laboratory received his generous gift to improve operations and maintain facilities. 

The Turfgrass Field Lab is used for teaching, research and extension.

NC State’s Home Turf Laboratory

The NC State Turfgrass Field Lab, once housed in front of the University Club, moved to its present location as part of the university’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in 2002. The additional space, increasing turfgrass faculty and staff, and burgeoning industry demand accelerated program growth resulting in field lab expansions in 2007 and 2010.

The 20-acre turfgrass site, within the 1,500-acre suburban field research complex, is instrumental to the university’s teaching, research and extension missions. A small state budget funds two employees and minor costs, but largely, it is funded through turfgrass research and from industry vendors.

The turfgrass field lab houses thousands of research plots, including breeding nurseries, National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) trials and other areas dedicated to landscape and athletic turfgrass management research.  

Extension Specialist Grady Miller presents variety evaluations at a Turfgrass Field Day
Extension Specialist Grady Miller presents variety evaluations at a Turfgrass Field Day

As the nation’s second-largest turfgrass academic program, many undergraduate and graduate student classes and labs visit for practical skills training like calibration, irrigation and plant identification. A myriad of public tours and industry field days are also hosted there.

Turfgrass professor and extension specialist Grady Miller emphasizes the field lab’s significance.

“NC State’s turfgrass program encompasses all facets: breeding, management, pest management, soil microbiology, irrigation and more. We are unique in the intersection of cool-season and warm-season turfgrasses. Few other programs can match the diversity of NC State. And it’s all at work at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Lab.”

Turfgrass management plots at NC State's Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Field Lab.
Turfgrass management plots at the Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Field Lab.

Gift Will Enhance Turfgrass Experience

Womble’s gift is among the most unique the turfgrass program has received. At a time when the field lab is juggling increasingly complex equipment and research needs, it is welcomed.

“Steve was a glass-half-full guy,” said turfgrass lecturer Emily Erickson. “But I think his estate gift still surprised all of us. It will help our programs reach a new level — something we can’t do alone.”

While conversations about the funds are just beginning, faculty are focused on fulfilling Womble’s intent. Because of Womble’s generosity, there are numerous possibilities on how this gift will benefit the program, such as an equipment service center to maintain specialized equipment and provide students with hands-on learning.

Marty Parrish manages operations at NC State's Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Research Lab.
Marty Parrish manages operations at the Lake Wheeler Turfgrass Research Lab.

“This idea would have an ongoing impact in keeping with the spirit of Steve’s gift,” Miller said. “It’s challenging to raise money for capital improvements and we’ve outgrown our current structure several fold. This would be a nice asset to add to an important university unit.”

As the Lake Wheeler Road complex becomes an increasingly public space, improving the facilities and capacity enhances its impact for students, industry and citizens. 

“From new cultivar releases to athletic field management strategies and home lawn maintenance, our turfgrass programs, centered at the Lake Wheeler Field Laboratory, cover a lot of ground,” said Jeff Mullahey, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “This generous gift from Mr. Womble will demonstrably enhance our operations, ensuring we deliver extension and educational programs that benefit everyone who walks, plays or builds a business on turfgrass.”

Sola St. Augustinegrass was a new release in 2022 from the NC State Turfgrass Breeding Program.
Sola St. Augustinegrass was a new release in 2022 from the NC State Turfgrass Breeding Program.

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