First Interview Session (June 19, 2008)
Narrator: Lee R. Gjovik
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 19 June 2008 (Thursday)
Location: Phone interview
Transcriptionist: Allison Page (06/27/08)
Auditor: Ellen Jacks (8/5/08)
00:00:00 - 00:03:09 Introduction
introduction, early years, education, background, preparation, University of Minnesota, career, World War II
Good morning today is Thursday June 18th 2008; my name is Allison Page---
Correction, I think it's the 19th today.
Oh the 19th okay. My name is Allison Page, I'm with the UW Oral History Program and this morning I will be interviewing Lee Gjovik [retired from] the U.S. Forest Products Lab for their centennial oral history project. Mr. Gjovik if you want to start just by talking about where you were born, when, and some of your early background, maybe your education as well.
All right, I was born in a little town in northern Minnesota by the name of in 1931 so that makes me, I think 77. I went to high school in Greenbush, Minnesota and out of high school [in 1951] I went into the Air Force for four years. And then went to the University of Minnesota and got my master's degree there in 1961.
What was your master's in?
Wood science and technology. [Short pause]
Okay, if you want to continue. Sorry about that.
That's all right. I, there was a long spell, probably twenty years [that] the Laboratory---the Forest Products Laboratory---I'll refer to it as the Laboratory only; when they had not hired basically anybody, because during World War II there [was extensive] buildup of [personnel] for the military effort in Madison. The Forest Products Lab had over seven hundred, probably closer to seven hundred and fifty employees at that time. So from end of World War II to the Korean War they basically had been trying to reduce their staff rather than layoff so, they had hired [very few staff since WWII ended in 1945]. I was surprised when I [learned] that I was hired. So I came to work August 1961 and was [assigned] into a wood preservation research [division] and I guess that's the beginning of my life here at Forest Products Lab. I've been now retired since 1989.
00:03:09 - 00:06:22 Knowledge
knowledge, Forest Products Laboratory, University of Minnesota, impressions, teach, short course, projects, colleagues,
And how did you learn about the Forest Products Lab? Was that something that you picked up while you were in school or some other means?
Oh yeah that was everybody's dream to graduate in wood science and technology at the University of Minnesota and come to work at a federal lab, the Madison lab, and everybody knew about it. But they also knew that they hadn't hired anybody for many years so we didn't really think we would be able to get in. It worked and it was a fun ride. [Short pause].
Okay. What were your initial impressions of the Lab? I know you said that it was kind of everybody's dream to work there, but more personally, how did you feel about the Lab itself?
Oh it was a great place to work of course and being right next to the great University of Wisconsin was a plus cause we could go and take courses there very inexpensively. So it was a good marriage between the Laboratory and the University. I would teach short courses over there [throughout] my career, yes.
Do you have any memories or first impressions of the first couple days on the job here in 1961 or the first year or so working with individual people or projects?
The first impression I got was [the age] span between my age [of 27 and the next age-level of employee, about 47 years]. My boss was Dr. Baechler [chief of the chemistry of wood preservatives project] - great man, very knowledgeable and very unselfish. He taught me so much about wood products and wood preservation research. It was a good time. It was kind of sad when Fridays come around and we couldn't come back to work. That's the way it was.
00:06:22 - 00:07:43 Early Career
early career, wood preservation, projects, treatment, paint
So when you first started here, you started in a wood preservation project? Is that correct?
Could you say a little bit more about that? The type of work that you did or the---who did you work with and in what capacity?
Well the Wood Preservation [Division was quite large], oh, I imagine there must have been fifty to sixty employees in there. [The chemistry of wood preservatives was a part of the Wood Preservation Division. The Divison included 1) chemistry of wood preservatives, 2) wood treatment, 3) paints, 4) pathology, 5) adhesives.]
00:07:43 - 00:10:10 Typical Day
typical day, projects, public, species identification, technicians; Davidson, Harley
Could you maybe describe what a typical day at the Forest Products Lab was like? Who you worked with on a day to day basis and the special projects that worked on or ones that were most memorable?
Well it was, you know, [the Lab] was opened to the public, we had a lot of visitors coming in seeking information, so I would spend a lot of time with the visitors coming in the front door and they'd want to know something about [a problem they were] having getting some wood treated or had probably some species identification they needed done. Something, always something different going on.
[Over the years I had four to eight workers reporting to me, about half were technicians and half were professionals]. One man was excellent, he was one of the older people and his name was Harley Davidson of all things, Harley Davidson was his real name. Great guy and he ran [what] we [call] a full blown [wood] treating plant back there. We could treat wood just like a commercial company could treat wood, so he run the plant back there and was just a super, super technician. And I had several others, a chemist that did the chemical analysis for us. It was, I don't know, a typical day was a surprise because you never knew what was going to happen. We would work from---we start at eight to five in the afternoon, but many times we didn't go home until eight o'clock at night because you had [reactions] going and you couldn't stop it. You never thought about the quitting time, just worked until your job was done. [Short pause].
00:10:10 - 00:12:07 Co-Workers
co-workers, conflict, divisions, cooperation, engineering group
I know you mentioned a couple of times about being so young when you started at the lab. Did that ever create any problems or was that not really an issue?
No, I [don't] think [my age] created any problems, I think it was a welcome [relief for] the people that had been there for [a while]. The [staff] that was there when I was hired were, like I say, they're about twenty years older than me and they really would take me under their wing and help me along. [Whenever] you'd have a problem with something and a reaction didn't work the way you thought it should you could always go up and find somebody say oh well try this, or try this. It was just a fun place.
So did you get to work quite a bit with other division then on a regular basis?
Oh yes, oh yes. We'd work with the engineering group. When we would treat a species of wood with a chemical we were concerned that had we done anything to damage the integrity of the piece of wood, did it get weaker because we treated it. So yeah we worked with a lot of different disciplines all over the lab. We would have, certainly had to work with the wood identification group, [when] we'd get stuff in that we didn't know what it was and we had to take it up there and have them identify it. [Short pause].
00:12:07 - 00:15:17 Travel
travel, American Wood Preservers Association, industry, Publishing, field testing
You worked quite a bit with other departments then within the Lab. Did your work ever take you outside of the office?
Yes it did a lot. Yeah I traveled a lot. I had been there probably ten years I would---oh I think I was in the field traveling probably half the time.
What places did you go and what kind of work did you do?
Well we were a [chemistry of wood preservatives] work unit and as such we were members of the American Wood Preservers Association, which was an industry [government] and university members' group of setting standards for the treatment of wood with preservatives. So I was on standards committee for probably twenty, twenty-five years of my time there. So I traveled a lot to committee meetings and to conventions of the Association. Published a lot of papers. I belonged to the Forest Products Research Society, which is right next door to the Lab you know. I was a member of that group for a long time, published a lot of papers in their journal. And we had treated wood specimens for evaluation in various areas of the country, test sites, from Maine to Washington state, and Mississippi and Minnesota had test [specimens] in the ground; we would treat stakes, two by four or three quarter inch steaks about eighteen inches long, treat them with various preservatives at different loading or retentions we call it. Then set them in field test spots and then you'd have to go back and inspect them once a year and that made a lot of travel. So the test results from the field tests that went into standards so that when they were treating a fencepost for a farmer or treating a piling for industrial building they would know what preservative they should use and what retention they should put in there. So that was the fun part of it, seeing if your research got used.
00:15:17 - 00:18:29 Memories
memories, projects, satisfying, cellon, Koppers, biocide, Treatment
Is there one particular project, either through your travels or at the Lab itself that stands out from your memories?
Well, you know, at this point I've told you what a great place it was to work, but you know it doesn't always work that well. And I think the biggest headache I had, which was a dealing with a preservative called cellon. It was invented by a company called Koppers out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They would dissolve the biocide in LP gas, liquid petroleum gas, which is [a liquid under pressure]. Anyway, they had it devised; they put the biocide in the LP gas, treat the wood, and when the wood came out of the cylinder after treatment, it looked like it had never been treated. And the way it performed in the field I kind of think it probably never had been treated because you couldn't see any evidence that it had been treated. It was a big headache to us because we could see the cellon treatment failing all around us and the company just kept pouring more money into [the process] and continuing to do it. But I'd say if I was just going to pick out one bad thing that I can call on, and that would be cellon. It was a disaster and headache to me and I had to deal with the Koppers company people. They were trying to convince me that this was a great process [although] our tests didn't show it. So it was [a problem] to me. Although, I guess if you only have one thing in thirty years that bothers you, that ain't too bad.
You have to realize that the Lab is a federal Lab and as such our main purpose is to make sure that the people of the United States get a fair deal when they buy treated wood. We weren't there to help a company get rich, we were trying to get people that were buying treated wood to get what they thought they were getting. [Short pause].
00:18:29 - 00:23:46 Frustration
frustration, cellon, project; Bescher, Ralph, Koppers Company
So were you incredibly frustrated then that this treatment wasn't--?
I guess the one thing that was frustrating to me, I didn't like the idea that they---it was obvious it was not going to work and all our tests showed it wasn't going to work. Let me just give you kind of a sad scenario to this thing, a real [big] problem. I said we would treat two by four stakes and three-quarter inch stakes, put them in the ground and we had the cellon treatment. It's a special treatment so we had to go to Orville, Ohio and be on hand when they treated our wood. We put in fence posts, two by four stakes, and [¾ by ¾ inch] sapling stakes. We had them all treated to our [specs and] the retention we wanted. So we were there on the site when they were treated, made sure it was done, and was completed. They were bundled, put on a train, and shipped down to Gulf Port, Mississippi. Well here we had round fence posts, two by four stakes, and sapling stakes in our tests.
Well as you can imagine the small stakes were starting to show pretty bad decay in about eighteen months [to] two years. Two by fours are showing attack two years to three years, serious attacks, and the [untreated] controls were just---the untreated ones were just about as good as treated ones. Well a guy by the name of Ralph Bescher [a VP] with Koppers Company, he was supposed to be the guy that invented this thing [cellon]. He came [out] and said well the reason you're having trouble down there is because this cellon treatment's meant for long stock, poles and it couldn't work on sawn materials. Well he forgot that we also had fence posts, which was a round pole, like a short pole and he told me that well we just ignore those things because [cellon's] not meant for sawn materials. I said well that's okay now that we got the fence posts in and they should show up now in about a year. Well all of a sudden Ralph Bescher the president of Koppers [Co.] came into the Lab, met our director, and demanded that the fence posts be removed from our test site. I didn't know a thing about it until I got word from my people down in Mississippi that Koppers' truck is here loading up your fence posts [from] your [test] plots, you want them to go [ahead]? And I said hell no so I start checking around and our director, unknown to me, had approved that they can take their fence posts out [of our government test site]. Well there goes our data so they continued to keep on treating that cellon, which is a lick in a promise and a lot of people complained to Kopper, they paid through the nose trying to make it work. They replaced, I don't know how many poles [they replaced, but it was in the thousands]. It [just] didn't work and we could have saved them a lot of money [if we were allowed] to shut it off the pass. But they didn't, and our director was part of it at that time. Ed Locke if you want to know his name.
Okay. So this treatment actually went on the market then?
Oh yes. Not to our liking, we could see it was a problem but---They called the company the Big K, they ruled the roost, but they didn't rule me or the [wood preservation unit], at least I guess you could say they had a hold of the director. I had some bad times with them but I guess [that's] some of the challenges we go through in life.
00:23:46 - 00:25:09 Industry
industry, conflict, collaboration
So was that a fairly common thing to be butting heads with the industry when you were working with them or was that just a special case?
That was a special case, mostly industry people would come to see us and say what do you think of this idea, do you think it will work. We'd say well lets put some in tests and we can give you [an answer] in probably two years. Or if they come in---oh there was always people coming in with a sack full of tricks, they got the best thing in the world you know and ninety percent of the time you could throw it out because their idea was flawed. One thing with working and having your head on straight and understanding a little bit about wood and how it reacts to chemicals, you can hit it off real easy because your knowledge and you know what wood is like and how you handle it, it helps and that's what we were good at. The advice they get from us was always free there was no charge for it.
00:25:09 - 00:28:30 Colleagues, Memories
colleagues, memories; Black, John; Soper, Glen; adhesives, Lamination; DeGroot, Rodney
So we talked a little bit about the actual work that you did, let's maybe switch gears and if you could say a little bit about some of the colleagues that you worked with and strong memories or thoughts about the people that you worked with on a day to day basis and anything that you want to say maybe about the administration, working with the higher levels of the Forest Products Lab?
Well, the guy who headed up the paint project was John Black, an excellent guy on paint matters, he knew everything. And we had an adhesive or gluing section. Vern Soper was one of the top technicians in there and if we'd had a problem with gluing---see sometimes we would get what they called the laminated piece of wood glued together like a laminated beam and we'd put it in the treating cell and they'd put high pressure on it and it would start to delaminate. Well that's when we go and start talking to the glue people and turned out they didn't use the waterproof glue so it just dissolved in the cylinder.
I became a project leader after about five years I believe, five, maybe six years. So I had I think about thirteen people working under me for quite a while and then the Lab started downsizing so they put a number of projects together into bigger work units. We had around four hundred-fifty plus [staff] when I started work there and now I think they have to shake the trees pretty good to find a hundred. So it downsized a lot and it was downsizing in my later years. I had great people to work with all through my career there. I guess if I don't say it somebody else might, I had a project leader one time his name was Rodney DeGroot, which was a bit of a challenge.
You want me to muddy the water?
It's up to you.
[laughs] I don't care. When you put this [together] will I get a chance to look it over?
Yes you will.
00:28:30 - 00:33:19 DeGroot
DeGroot, Rodney, project leader, colleagues, conflict; Grady, Jim
Okay good. Well, everything just [does not] run smoothly all the time. Anyway, this Rodney DeGroot was my project leader and I wasn't getting along [very] good with him and I thought well I better make an effort, so I said Rodney why don't we go together and do a study. I thought that might be a good way to break the ice so we could understand each other. So I said I'll write up the study plans and get the work going. I was working on the project and I thought well he's the co-author on the study plan. I'm at a point in the study where I had a couple of ways to go with it and I thought well, I'll leave it up to him to decide, I didn't care which way but we had to make a decision to do it one way or another. So, I go into his office and I said look I'm at this point in the study and we can go one of two ways, you tell me which way you want to go, you can make the decision. Well he started talking---I called him the guy a champion of double-talk, talk like gangbusters and say nothing---he started talking all across a whole gamut of things for the study. Back and forth, back and forth and I was sitting there and he never [made his point]. I asked him a simple question, which of the two ways to go, which way you want to go---he wouldn't commit to [one]. He wouldn't commit, he just kept passing over and over and over and over. So I finally, I just pulled up a chair and said stop right there Rod, I said right there, just say A or B which way you want to go. He got so mad he [jumped] out of his chair, his chair rolled across his office and slammed into the wall and he walked out. I was [left] in his office, he stormed out and I sat there for a while alone in his office. His secretary, she heard that chair slam into the wall and she came to see if I was alright. She'd seen Rod leave and I was (sitting) there and I said well I guess I'd better go, I guess I'm not going to get an answer today.
He sounds like a very interesting person to work with, were there other kind of colorful characters at the Lab that you worked with?
Good or bad?
We had some of them. The guy that worked the stockroom his name was Jim Grady and he always had a story, always had a story and we'd get things we needed like chemicals, we'd go to the window and we'd just sign a slip and he'd get it for us. So he run the stockroom, but he you'd always leave there chuckling because he'd tell you something. Really made your day to lighten up your [day]; you may be irritated about something and he could make a joke out of it. Those are fun days.
00:33:19 - 00:38:17 Men's Club
Men's Club, activities, golf, travel
We had a, in those days, a men's club [and the women had the Forestettes]. You couldn't do it now because you have to have---it's an employee club or something now. But we had a men's club and once a year we'd have the big bash and as men would do, it could get raunchy. That's a uh, looking back there it was crazy times, but we I guess like I say, we played hard and worked hard and the Lab was a place that everybody recognized. I don't think there's a wood person in the whole United States would not have loved to work at the Forest Products Lab, it [was] the Mecca, the Mecca of wood research.
What kind of things did the men's club do exactly? Could you say little bit more about that and were there other activities available to you at the Lab?
You know we had all-Lab picnics of course and they were---everybody attended, families, everybody comes to those. It was good times. The men's club, we had golf outings and things of that nature, there was always activities. We had a softball league, baseball, [bowling], lots of things going on.
Do you have any particular memories of some of these activities that stand out in your mind?
Oh I can't bring any to mind.
You know I told you I did travel a lot and I had a gift certificate sticker from Northwest Airlines [as] a two million mile club member.
So that was---[NWA] kept track of the miles you fly and when I [reached 100,000 miles] I got a whole package of goodies. I got a CD player, a new attaché case, oh a whole bunch of things that they give for flying with them so much. Of course Northwest was the main carrier for the area and I was always ticketed on Northwest when I was flying somewhere. So like I say I did travel a lot in those days, [almost] every week I'd be gone somewhere.
And was that kind of a highlight for you?
It was necessary. No I got along, you know I have two boys, course they kind of had to be raised by their mother, but I was home on the weekends, but I was traveling a lot and I guess it's just what you pay for what you want to do. I would do it over again. Are you still there?
00:38:17 - 00:41:34 Teaching
teaching, University of Wisconsin, students, relationship, Forest Products Laboratory, budget
Oh okay. Well I guess maybe to switch gears a little bit I have a couple questions about how you---well you had mentioned earlier teaching some classes at the University of Wisconsin. Is that correct?
Yeah. These were short courses that you'd come in there to give a two or three hour lecture on wood preservatives. It was kind of an extension of the program for people coming back and more about uses of wood. So I did that for about fifteen years, couple times a year they'd have people come in.
And how did the Forest Products Lab feel about that kind of relationship with the University? Was that something they kind of fostered and encouraged or not?
Oh absolutely, yes. I think the feeling was both ways, the University had students that would come over and they could do their projects at the lab, if it was testing wood or treating wood yes. It was a good relationship between the University and the Lab. Going back a little earlier up until 1929 the Forest Products Laboratory was on campus. Did you know that? Right over by the railroad tracks near the mechanics lab.
The building is still there.
Is that the old engineering building?
Right there where the tracks cross Johnson [Street].
It's right there.
Not a big building but that's where we were until 1929 and then they built the one here now. So they have a big building program going on there right now. Did you know?
00:41:34 - 00:45:12 Forest Products Laboratory
Forest Products Laboratory, relationship, USDA, Forest Service, perception, cooperation, change, frustration, budget
Well kind of talking about the federal government. How did you feel about working for an agency that's part of the U.S. USDA Forest Service and the federal government?
It was great. I can't talk too much about today but in my day, yes it was a great idea to have a centralized place to do wood research. There are satellite places all around the country that do special things on wood research but the one place that all things are done to wood [is] at the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison. But there are stations in Washington [state] and down in Gulf Port, Mississippi, and in [other] places. There are satellite regional labs that do specialty work for wood products for that specific area, but the lab is the granddaddy where [most of] the work would come from.
So would you say that your impressions of the Forest Service and the Forest Products Lab have remained pretty much the same or have they changed over time?
Well it's kind of hard to answer that without stepping on somebody's toes. I think it has stayed pretty much the same but you have to kind of understand that the---there's a money crunch going on and it's hard to keep a lab going with many people as we had at this day in age when the funds are hard to come by. So I can understand the frustration going on in trying to keep their heads above water and get appropriations for running the lab. The director today is a nice guy, he's good man but it's got to be a concern to him.
Were budgets an issue when you were still at the Lab or not really?
No, I didn't have to worry about that too much it was not my job, but if you had a project and you wrote the thing up there were always funds for it so that was the nice thing about it. If the project required some travel there was always money for travel, everything was there. So yeah I got nothing but fond memories of my day at the Lab, it was fun. I waited for Monday to come to go back to work. [Long pause]
00:45:12 - 00:50:06 Retirement
retirement, mark, impact, USDA, service, reasons, consulting
Okay. Well I guess we can move in to sort of the end of your career and your retirement time. When and why did you retire from the Forest Products Lab and do you feel that your work has left a mark on the Forest Products Lab or USDA in general?
Oh yeah the work I [did] there has made a difference. Publications are still surfacing around the globe. As to when I retired, I had with my military time I had thirty years in service and I guess for one thing, the traveling I did for my job was a strain on the family and I thought that I'll take my retirement and do something different. So I retired. This is something just for information---I had been thinking about it for a couple of weeks. My thirty years are coming up in 1989 and I thought should I or shouldn't I? So I went up to personnel and filled out my papers for retirement, they were just as surprised as I was I guess, why are you doing this? I said it just [seems] to be [the] time, let somebody else [carry] the load for a while. I called my wife that afternoon, and I said, by the way you don't have to fix a lunch for me tomorrow because I'm retiring today [laughs]. She said what. I said yeah I'm done, so I won't have to have a lunch tomorrow. So that's how she knew about it.
So it was kind of a spur of the moment thing or was something that triggered that?
Well I mentioned this guy DeGroot okay, he was my project leader and every day was a confrontation of some sort or another. He didn't like me and I didn't like him I guess. That was one thing I thought I don't need this stress. I had always felt I could hang up my shingle and do a little bit of consulting because I considered myself very knowledgeable in wood preservation and product work like this. So, I felt well I'll just make up some business cards and send a few fliers out there and as of today I'm doing some consulting. Well there's no such thing as a little bit of consulting I found out, I was busier then for about  years than I ever [was working] at the lab. I had to put in a blackboard up in my office---in one of the bedrooms I changed into an office---I put a blackboard up there just to keep track of the court cases that were coming up and the depositions I had to [get ready for]. So it was kind of a crazy time there for [a number of] years. Then my dad told me there are two ways to tell somebody no when they want some help. One is just to flat say no and the other [way] is charge so much nobody can't afford you. Well I can tell you the second one doesn't work, charging too much is not an option because I was charging three hundred dollars an hour and it still didn't slow down the work. So now you know a little of my personal side.
00:50:06 - 00:51:52 Accomplishments
Well in general do you feel that you accomplished everything that you set out to accomplish career wise and did the Forest Products Lab help you with that?
Yes I did. You know you never really [finish your work]; you always got projects going and you say well when I get done with this one it will be a good time to hang it up. Well while you're working on that one you start another one and then another one. So you got three going at the same time and they never have the same end point. So you just have to say well somebody else can finish it, the Lab was going on before I got here and it will go on after I leave here, that's about the philosophy you have to have. [Short pause].
Well that's kind the end of my questions unless you have any other stories, memories, or comments about the Forest Products that you would wish to record for posterity before we go.
I think you've probably heard them all by now. Anything else would be X rated. No, I think we've pretty much covered it and I hope it's helpful to you.
I think so.
[End of interview]