Having entered the workforce in the early 2000s, it’s hard to remember a time when I ever felt I couldn’t aspire to or achieve anything I wanted in my career. Maybe I’ve been fortunate to have had great employers who valued talent over whatever gender someone happens to be. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t have been possible without those women who fought so hard for workplace equality back in the ’60s,’70s and ’80s, proving that they were every bit as smart and capable as men.
How quickly we forget there was a time when women didn’t have it so easy or had to prove themselves a little more than their male counterparts in the same job. While that was the way things were when Lynda Wightman entered the workforce some 50 years ago, she never let the fact that she was a woman stop her from pursuing her dreams of a career in irrigation, even though she was greatly outnumbered by men. She’s proven that women can carve out successful careers for themselves in a predominately male industry, and she has blazed a trail for others to follow.
Those who know Wightman know that she always speaks her mind. That quality has proven beneficial over her long career at irrigation and lighting manufacturer Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California. In those 35 years she’s worn many different hats, been involved in several industry associations and traveled all over the world.
After such a great run, she decided it’s time to retire and focus on her 12-acre property in Missoula, Montana, where she can enjoy the outdoors, take in the mountain views, garden, go fly fishing, work on the barn or just take a stroll.
As her time at Hunter winds down, she looks back on her many accomplishments and the opportunities they’ve afforded others, starting with when she first became interested in the landscape and irrigation industry.
“I was the first woman to go to work for the city of Reno’s Parks and Recreation Department when I was 16,” she says. “That’s when I first got the bug to be in the landscaping, turf and horticulture industry.”
Wightman’s mother worked for the city and told her there were part-time openings, so she decided to find work there as well and was hired thanks to Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 to protect federally funded programs against sex discrimination.
She’ll never forget her first day on the job. “Here I was, this 16-year-old spunky little blonde bouncing in with my backpack, saying ‘hi’ to everybody.” Her friendliness was not returned. “All of a sudden I realized that nobody there knew I’d gotten hired. They were all about 69 to 75 years old, just waiting to retire. They all picked up their playing cards and their cigarettes and went over to the other side of the room.”
Although this “cold shoulder” treatment went on for another two months, it didn’t stop her from falling in love with the work she was doing. After working there three summers in a row, she decided to take things a step further.
She headed off to the University of Oregon where she studied landscape architecture, horticulture and landscaping. After graduating, she returned to Reno and worked for a landscape company. “Because it was Reno and there was a downtime during the winter, my boss tried to keep me busy doing landscape designs.” Wightman’s mother, who had recently moved to Southern California, had a better idea.
She suggested her daughter work winters with her in SoCal and summers in Reno. After a few years of that routine, Wightman moved to San Diego yearround and headed up the irrigation division of a landscape firm until an injury on the job prevented her from continuing. She had sprained her ankle many times before playing sports, but this sprain was one too many. It required reconstructive surgery.
“For the next year and a half I had to go to physical therapy. It seems they had overcorrected my ankle problem, and I was told I couldn’t do any more physical work,” Wightman says.
Never one to be deterred, she went back to school to learn something less labor intensive. Using the money she was receiving from workers’ compensation, she enrolled at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California. “Their irrigation program was fantastic, and I was able to get a job working for irrigation consultant Paul Morrison. We did irrigation design for a lot of the landscape architects in San Diego County.”
The flyer that changed everything
Wightman still remembers vividly how she was first introduced to Hunter Industries. While her boss was out of town, she noticed a flyer in the mail for the Southern California Landscape and Turf Show to be held in Orange County that said, “We have this new sprinkler called the Hunter 075 Series.”
This new sprinkler “was very intriguing to me but was very confusing too,” she recalls. So, off to the show she went to try to figure out what it was all about.
There she saw Chuck Huston and Gard Craw trying to set up. It looked like they needed some help, so Wightman jumped in to lend a hand.
“Your literature is very confusing,” she candidly told them. “I don’t understand how to design with the product you are trying to put onto the market.”
“That was in 1984,” she recalls, “and by February 1985, I’d raised so many questions, they told me to come into the office and I was hired.”
It was very early on in the company’s history.
“Hunter had only been around for a year and a half before I came on board.”
Wightman immediately liked working for the company that started the landscape industry’s “rotor revolution” with the introduction of its PGP gear-driven rotor sprinkler in 1983. “It was new, it was fun and it was challenging.” She recalls how some customers would be surprised when they learned of her knowledge and experience in irrigation.
It didn’t take long for Wightman to learn that the irrigation business “is all about getting to know the people and making them feel like you are there to help them.” She’s continued to do that in her many different roles with Hunter, stating that she’s “had more business card changes and worn more hats than anybody else at the company.”
Wightman says this all with a smile. “There are only about five or six of us who have been at the company as long as I have and that’s very fun for me. I am incredibly honored to work for such a fantastic company that lets me do what I think needs to get done.”
Over the years she’s done everything you can imagine at Hunter, going from sales, to marketing, to education, to training and even product development. “You name it,” she says, “I just do whatever needs to get done.”
Her two passions
In her main role as industry relations manager, she’s tasked with finding opportunities to grow the industry. She will tell you she’s very passionate about two things: getting more women involved in the industry and getting the next generation as a whole more interested in it too.
“Workforce development is at its peak right now because we don’t have people to hire,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job as an industry as a whole in predicting what’s going to happen down the road, and now it’s hitting us right in the face because none of us were proactive in developing that next generation of employees.”
She’s made it her mission to work with students. That’s given her an appreciation of what their instructors do on a day-to-day basis. She supports them by providing teaching materials and getting them involved with the Irrigation Foundation and its Faculty Academy.
“It’s just something I’m very passionate about,” she says. “Because of my industry relations job with Hunter, I represent us in every association that I can find globally. I introduce Hunter to these associations and at the same time, help the associations grow.”
While Wightman is appreciative that Hunter allows her to focus on these efforts, she says there’s still more to do. She’s concerned that many college landscape, horticulture and irrigation programs across the country are cutting back or being eliminated.“It’s happening everywhere,” she says, “It is really, really sad.”
A lack of awareness among students and their parents about the opportunities that are available in the industry is part of the problem, she says. “As an industry, we just haven’t done a good job of getting the word out about irrigation careers.”
Attempting to buck that trend is the Irrigation Foundation’s Faculty Academy, which has grown exponentially over the years, according to Wightman. In addition to the college instructors that benefit from the program, it now teaches high school teachers without any background in the industry how irrigation. She was pleased that the 2018 faculty academies hosted 61 attendees, 31 whom were first-time attendees. Many of them were high school teachers.
Not a "Man's World"
Lynda Wightman, industry relations manager for lighting and irrigation at Hunter Industries, San Marcos, California, wants the green industry to get away from the stigma that it’s a man’s world by getting more women involved in it.
Hunter sponsors a Women’s Forum each year at the Sports Turf Managers Association’s annual conference, which she says despite the name is not just for women.
“The purpose is to talk about issues that affect our lives.” Topics have included health, management, public speaking and changing careers. Many men have attended the conferences and participated on panels.
Mentorship and interning programs can also attract women to the industry, says Wightman. She also sees opportunity at a grassroots level through the young girls that are in the National FFA Organization and 4-H clubs. “They are being taught not just about crops but also turfgrass, landscape materials and urban agriculture,” Wightman says. “Our opportunity there is huge.”
A people person
If you ask Wightman what she likes most about her job, she will unhesitatingly say the people. And that includes people from a host of industry associations. Wightman has been part of just about all of them, including the Irrigation Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Society of Irrigation Consultants, the Sports Turf Managers Association, the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the American Sports Builders Association and the Professional Grounds Management Society. She’s received many honors from them, such as ASIC’s Sam Tobey Lifetime Achievement Award and STMA’s Harry C. Gill Founders Award. She’s also been inducted into the Green Industry Hall of Fame.
“I love being on boards for sure and seeing things get done for an association and its members,” she says.
Those she works with inside the Hunter organization are also important to her — and the feeling is mutual. “It’s so important to understand the purpose of the team and that you work together to help people be better at what they do,” she says. “It’s all about the relationships and the people.”
She considers the man who hired her, Chuck Huston, who was Hunter’s vice president of sales from 1983 to 2003, her mentor. He held a philosophy of “hang yourself as much as you can — but learn from it.” In other words, you can make mistakes as long as you learn from them. Wightman says this attitude empowers employees.
“It gives a person the opportunity to go out on a limb and try something, manage it and embrace it, and if it fails, to look at why it failed, learn from it and try again,” Wightman explains.
Change is good
It would be an understatement to say the industry and Hunter have changed a great deal since the introduction of that first rotor back in 1983. The advances in technology have been incredible, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Wightman has stayed up on all the advancements, although now you might find her asking herself jokingly, “Do I really want to learn about 3-D modeling for sprinklers?” Technology isn’t the only thing that’s different at Hunter. When Wightman started at the company, she was one of a half-dozen employees; now there are around 3,000.
“There are changes happening every day, and I have to say change is good, whether I like it or not,” Wightman remarks. “It’s just one of those things you’re going to have to get used to.”
And how about living in Montana, where she’s spent the last 12 years? She also spent six years in Connecticut before that, but “did not have much of a life other than driving to the Hartford airport.” The company encouraged her to “get a life.” She assured her Hunter colleagues she did have one and decided to move to Montana, which is also where she was born.
She’s continued to work for Hunter that whole time even taking over a sales territory in the western part of Montana for a while.
Among her many takeaways after more than three decades in the industry is the observation that the irrigation distributors and manufacturers have a tendency to hire people away from each other instead of bringing aboard students who want to get into the business. “Every company needs to look at those candidates because that’s only going to help raise the level of exposure and the awareness of what we do,” she says.
Those who do find their way into the industry, like Wightman, certainly seem to love it. She got her first taste of it as a teenager and knew it was what she wanted to do with her life. Why? She cites many reasons: being able to work outdoors, to meet people and to make them feel good.
“You can see the results of your work, see people feeling very good about it. I love tackling a project, having a challenge and fulfilling it,” she says.
Wightman also enjoys the water conservation aspect of the industry, educating people about the importance of not overwatering. Of the many roles she’s held at Hunter, her time working in international sales was enjoyable. For three years, her territory was Israel where she says knowledge about irrigation and water is phenomenal. She’ll also miss working with the sales and marketing team where she’s made many friendships.
To be successful in the irrigation business takes professionalism, knowledge, an understanding of and a respect for what other people in the industry do, she says. It’s also about “honesty, transparency and caring about the people who work for you and about whom you work for.”
Wightman’s favorite quote comes from the poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“I honestly live by that,” she says. Her last day at Hunter is Feb. 18, 2020.
She’s retiring so she can stay at home more and get to some long-put-off projects that her heavy travel schedule hasn’t allowed her to tackle, like working in her garden or re-staining her barn.
“It’s time to bring someone else into my work responsibilities and share those before I leave so they can grow into their 35 years.”
Whoever does take on the role Wightman is leaving better have good luggage and a current passport. At one point, Wightman served on 12 different boards of directors and three boards of trustees and was always on the road attending one meeting or another — and loving it. Her successor will need to share that same passion.
The irrigation industry is certainly grateful for Wightman’s dedication to its future. Her accomplishments will surely continue to open doors for others, especially women and young people, for decades to come.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A tribute to Wightman
Those who have worked closely with Lynda Wightman have a lot say about her contributions to the industry and to Hunter. We heard from a few of them and here is what they had to say.
“I have known Lynda for over 25 years and have worked closely with her teaching, volunteering, consulting and on various IA and ASIC Committees and Boards. Lynda has made many contributions to the irrigation industry, but I feel her dedication and commitment to irrigation education and students is what sets her apart. She is unselfish in spreading her knowledge to students and the irrigation industry including working with many university horticulture, turf and landscape architecture programs. Lynda is extremely well respected in the industry for her knowledge and love of irrigation as well as her work with students.”
— Brian E. Vinchesi, LEED AP, EIT, FASIC, CID, CIC, CLIA, CGIA, CWM-L, design engineer, Irrigation Consulting Inc.
“I was privileged to first know Lynda when we served together on the STMA board of directors. She impressed me as a great listener and as one of those rare people that naturally always left things better than when she found them. I’ve seen her teach countless turf managers that making a positive difference locally means they’re making a positive difference globally.
Lynda is the very best irrigation industry – not just Hunter Industries - ambassador I’ve ever met. Through her conference sessions and written articles she’s done more to help improve sports fields and facilities in this country than anyone else I know. Her actual job title – whatever it is – cannot capture all that she does for Hunter or for those of us in the turf management industry.
Lynda lives her entire life with great passion. Her passion for turf and landscape maintenance has been on display for decades. Now she’ll get to focus that passion on her gardens and doing the personally fulfilling things she’s put off for years. Those trout in western Montana will have a worthy adversary to contend with next spring and for many years to come!”
— Mike Andresen, grounds maintenance manager, Kirkwood Community College
I have worked with Lynda for 30 plus years, first as a customer of Hunter Industries and soon after, a coworker. She is a legendary fearless women in a male dominated industry. She has served on every prominent, worthwhile Board of Directors in our industry, always completely vested in making them all better. She always promotes education, mentoring and perfection. She is the unofficial leader of the Hunter Spec team, always looking for ways to improve our message. Her natural “Trailblazer” spirit, devotion to excellence and her energetic friendly personality is unmatched. Lynda is serious but fun, smart but approachable, always educating, always mentoring, enjoys great food and wine, mastered cooking, gardening and traveling, works hard and is a great friend to many; including me!
— Bob Schottke, Southwest specification manager, Hunter Industries