First Interview Session (June 20, 2008)
Narrator: Lawrence A. Soltis
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 20 June 2008 (Friday)
Location: Phone interview
Transcriptionist: Allison Page (06/26/08)
Auditor: Lauren Benditt (08/08/08)
00:00:00 - 00:03:05 Introduction
introduction, early years, education, background, student, engineering, preparation, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, career
Good morning today is Friday June 20th, 2008. My name is Allison Page, I'm with the UW-Madison Oral History Program. This morning I will be interviewing Larry Soltis with the U.S. Forest Products Lab. Mr. Soltis if you could just start by maybe stating your name, provide maybe a spelling, and then kind of talk a little bit about where you were born, when, and some of your early education?
Okay, my name is Lawrence Soltis, S-O-L-T-I-S. I'm originally from Milwaukee. I went to the University of Wisconsin, graduated with a degree in engineering in 1963. And then in 1964 I got a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin and as part of my master's program I worked at the Forest Products Lab as a student, engineering I guess I was classified as. After that I worked as a consulting engineer for quite a few years and then I went out for a PhD at the University of Minnesota. Then I worked for the University of Wisconsin for about ten years and then starting about 1980 I went back to the Forest Products Lab to start working there.
So did you receive your undergraduate degree at UW-Madison?
Okay. How did you decide on the career path that you chose? Was that something you had an early interest in, or did that just kind of develop gradually?
Oh no I had an early interest in it. I saw construction going on when I was, used to walk to school and I thought I'll be part of that so that's how I went into engineering. [pause]
Was there anything in your childhood that kind of prepared you for work at the Forest Products Lab?
Not really, no it just---when I got my master's degree we had to write a thesis and the professor was Professor [Krandall?] at the time, at the University of Wisconsin. He had, he knew people out at Forest Products Lab and he says they have a program where you can do your experimental work at the lab and do your theoretical work at the University, and you end up with a thesis at the end of it. So it sounded like a good deal to me so I did it.
00:03:05 - 00:05:38 Knowledge
knowledge, Forest Products Laboratory, timber engineering, education, publications, employment; Wood, Lyman; Lisco, Joe; Warren, Fred
So had you heard of the Forest Products Lab before you started your schoolwork?
Not really. In my undergraduate work I took a course in timber engineering and we used literature from Forest Products Lab and that's the first time I'd heard of the place.
You said that you did some student work over at the Lab, is that correct?
Yeah I did it for my master's thesis.
Okay, could you maybe describe a little bit about that experience?
Oh it was a really good deal for a student cause we could work part-time any hours we wanted to, got paid for it, and had complete use of the lab facilities over there. So I did an experimental program and, you know, got all the support services you know photography services, the typing services for a thesis, and all that sort of thing. It's a good deal for a student. It was kind of like a research assistantship situation for a graduate student.
And who did you work with during that time?
At the Lab it was [Lyman Wood?] who died probably about five years after that. He was in charge of the wood engineering section I worked for. Fred Warren was also there at the time, he was like the assistant director for wood engineering, I think. And Joe [Lisco?] was also there, he was kind of the head of the whole division, the wood engineering division. But I worked directly for [Lyman Wood?] and then I was jointly with Professor [Lee Krandall?] from the civil engineering department at the University.
You said that you worked---after your master's degree you worked for industry for a while?
00:05:38 - 00:06:25 Housing And Urban Development
Housing and Urban Development; Bohanon, Billy
What made you decide to go back to the Forest Products Lab and how did you find out about the position that you eventually ended up taking?
Oh, well at the time I was working at the University of Wisconsin, I was on the faculty there in fact, and I had been talking to Bill [Bohanon?] and they had a big HUD [Housing and Urban Development] contract came in and he indicated that if I have interest in a job I should come over there and it just sounded interesting at the time so I did it. Was no major soul searching involved in it.
00:06:25 - 00:09:53 Employment
employment, beginning, impression, research, expectation, projects, management, Housing and Urban Development
In which division did you start in then?
Oh they changed names a couple times. I think it was just called wood engineering at the time.
Do you have any memories or first impressions of the first couple of days, months, or years once you entered the Forest Products Lab?
No I pretty well knew it, what to expect, because I'd been there before and I knew you know the first year you generally do a lot of literature searching and get current in the literature and stuff like that. So I pretty well knew what to expect what was going to happen and that's about what happened. It went smoothly and we finished off the HUD project and then I'd become a project leader after that.
Could you maybe describe a little bit about that first project that you worked on?
We had a large contract from HUD and there were like five or six different studies involved in the thing and they basically, if I recalled correctly, what they wanted was for us to develop some field tests that they could go out and check some houses, some various structural members and do it in the field with kind of quick and easy tests. We developed some tests for them and wrote it up and gave it them and that was about the end of it.
So after that project was done you became a division leader?
Project leader, sorry.
They went to what they called a research work unit. It use to be---they use to have a wood engineering division and then they switched over to individual smaller projects, which they called research work units, and I became the project leader for a research work unit called engineering design criteria.
And did you maintain that role then for the rest of your career at the Forest Products Lab?
And how was that different or similar from just being a general employee?
Well you had management responsibilities and a lot more meetings, a lot, lot more meetings.
Was it something that you enjoyed?
I also enjoyed the research end of it, and as project leader you were required to do a certain amount of research and then a certain amount of supervision. And, I also enjoyed the research part of it a lot more than the supervision part. [long pause].
00:09:53 - 00:10:54 Typical Day
typical day, research, management, writing, presentations
Okay. What a typical day like while you were at the Forest Products Lab?
Well you always spent time reading a lot of technical literature. That always took up a fair amount of time. You always had papers to write, that took a bit of time. You reviewed a lot papers, which took time. You oversee the experimental---most of our work was experimental work and the people in the mechanics lab basically did all the work, you just oversaw and give them direction on what to do. And then you did spend time presenting papers and writing proposals, a lot of time reading and writing basically.
00:10:54 - 00:13:05 Memories
memories, projects, Navy, Gulf War, minesweepers, testing
Were there any special projects that your team worked on that you have particularly strong memories of?
Oh yeah there's several of them. First one was we did a project for the Navy. It was right during the first Gulf War and at the time a concern in the war was that the Iraqis were going to mine the state streets of Hormuz and shut off the oil supply. So the Navy sent over some Navy minesweepers to make sure that they could sweep the mines up. And they had just built the new class of minesweepers, they had fifteen of them built, and while they were sending two of them over to Gulf, they were doing sea trials on two others and they had some failures in the engine room. The connections that held the engines down broke loose. And basically they came to us to find out what the problem was and we explained, after doing a bunch of testing, we explained what was wrong with the connection and then we came up with some techniques to repair it and we had to test all those too, so it was a fair amount of testing on that. So anyway the bottom line of it was that each minesweeper then carried a repair kit onboard based on our recommendations on how to fix the problem. Fortunately they never had to use it because they never mined the Straights of Hormuz. So, we never did find out if it worked in actual, in action but it did work in the laboratory so I say that near as I know to this day those minesweepers still carrying those repair kits onboard. So that was interesting.
00:13:05 - 00:15:56 U.S.S. Constitution
We also had a study on the U.S.S. Constitution, which is the old ship built in 1797, it's in Boston Harbor; it's a tourist attraction; it's still run actively by the Navy. And on that project basically the Navy came to us and they wanted to know how we could give them some inspection techniques to find decay in the ship. There wasn't a lot of research in this, it was mostly applying existing technology to their particular problem. But we showed them how to do it and we couple of Navy technicians come in and spend a week with us or two weeks, or whatever it was, to learn how to use the techniques. They went back and they inspected the entire ship and they did find some decay in the thing, and had to replace certain members based on what they found. So that was interesting.
And a third one that was interesting was we---up until that time all fastener design methods, by fasteners I mean bolts and [light?] screws, nails, [sheerplates?], whatnot were---the design method we basically all based on testing. You tested a punch of joints, you came up with some numbers, and you said this is about the strength of the joint that the member can take. Well, what we did is we came up with a theory how to do it theoretically rather than experimentally and it held for all fasteners and it, it got adopted by all the building codes in our country so it's still being used and it's the basis for all the design of fasteners in the country today. It also---the Europeans at the same time were working on one and we kind of worked together with them. And they also have it incorporated in all of the European codes. So, in the international standards of today this method is being used so it's quite a success story there. So anyway, that's three of them that kind of stand out that were kind of interesting big projects.
00:15:56 - 00:18:37 Travel
travel, engineering, collaboration; Erickson, John; Houghton, Michigan
I know that you said that you did a lot of writing and reading as part of your position, did any of your work ever take you outside of the Lab?
What do you mean by outside?
Well did you do any traveling?
Oh yeah, we did a lot of traveling. Basically to present papers. Went to a lot of conferences to present papers, was on various committees both national and international that you had to---you know usually the committees were to prepare standards for something of that nature. And I think I went to Europe three times for that, and I traveled in the United States I don't know maybe six, eight times a year something like that to various cities where different conferences were being held.
Were there any trips in particular that are very memorable or that were very interesting?
Oh that's a good question. I don't like to travel I have to tell you that. So I guess I didn't find of them were too interesting. The most interesting, I had to go to London one time and while I was there I took a few extra days and I went touring some museums. And I wanted to see how the English looked upon the American Revolution from their point of view. I went to one military museum and it kind of almost like a footnote, they said this army division had been over in the States, or over in the colonies I guess it was then, in 1776 and they came over to put down an uprising over here. That's about all they talked about our American Revolution.
So our American Revolution and the 4th of July aren't celebrated in England quite like they are here. So that was kind of an interesting place to go to. But most of them, you know they---all the conferences what not they follow the same formats, you know generally three, four days of nothing but presenting papers and finding out what other people are doing and presenting your results and then you talk to researchers from different places and find out what they're doing. It just kind of keeps you on top of things.
00:18:37 - 00:20:01 Impression
impression, public, international, visitors, scientists, research, reputation
Well as a representative of the Forest Products Lab did you ever get a sense or an impression of how the Lab was perceived internationally?
Oh it was, it was---the international people knew who we were because you know they had to do the same thing in their places, they had you know read the literature and whatnot and they saw the work that we were producing and we saw the work that they were producing. So you pretty well got to know people around the world who were working in your same area. And they knew you pretty well. We did have lot of people came over as visiting scientists that we had a couple---well more than a couple, must have had half a dozen in the, came to my research work unit, spend a year over here. And I think it was basically they were padding their resumes so to speak, if I could be so blunt. It was that you know if they said that they spent a year abroad studying and working at a research lab you know was better for them back home when they went back there. But they knew the Lab, no question about that.
00:20:01 - 00:22:10 Social Activities
social activities, colleagues, leagues, golf
Well if we want to maybe switch gears a little bit and talk about some of the everyday activities inside the Lab. Are there any particular colleagues that stand out in your mind or interesting characters that worked at the Lab?
Interesting characters. [pause]. I'd rather not go there cause they're all---you know everyone is an individual.
And they're all different and none that really, really, you know, was so out of line that jumps out at you. There were a lot of smart people there, I had a quite a few in my own group.
Were there any---besides the general kind of work environment, were there any activities that the Lab did as like a social networking kind of thing?
They had the golf league, I used to sub on that for a while. I wouldn't say it was a strong social thing, they had some activities that I didn't participate in---I'm not a social butterfly. But I did enjoy the golf league and then you'd use to have golf outings where you'd take the afternoon off sometime and you'd go to different golf courses. I use to golf with them and I enjoyed that.
00:22:10 - 00:25:20 Projects
projects, frustration, challenges, interests, research, management, funding, budgets, grant proposals
Well in your position were there any aspects of working at the Forest Products Lab that particularly enjoyed and conversely was there anything that you found particularly frustrating?
Well I also enjoyed the research you know cause you never know what you'll find. You know you do a set of experiments, and you thought you knew what you were going to find but then the experiments would lead you someplace else. And, so I always enjoyed that. The part I didn't like was all the meetings and the management functions that use to drive me up the wall. I also didn't enjoy the, in later years they went to seeking more outside funding and you had to write a lot of proposals and whatnot to get outside funding, and I didn't particularly enjoy that either.
Was funding a particularly difficult aspect, or problematic?
Well it was always a problem but I guess it---the biggest thing happened I think during when Reagan was president is the Lab downsized a bit and for a number of years they basically just didn't replace anybody who retried and whatnot. I know my own group, I think we started out we had nine people if I remember right and went down to six something like. When we did apply for outside money through proposals we generally didn't use that money to fund salaries. So, we ended up using the money---we used to hire graduate students and---mostly graduate students I guess we spent it on so we could support them and then they would work for us, and we'd get a lot of work out of them. It was a little frustrating we couldn't increase our own permanent staff, you know the permanent people kept declining for a while. So that was problematic, but it wasn't, you know, it's just life you know. Things go up and they go down so I guess I wouldn't say it was a major problem, it was just a different way of doing business.
00:25:20 - 00:28:31 Downsizing
downsizing, change, atmosphere; Reagan, Ronald; budgets, attitudes
Do you know what the reason was for the downsizing?
Yeah, when Reagan was president he basically froze budgets for a number of years. And we had a flat budget for, I don't know, four or five years there. And when you have a flat budget your expenses keep going up because you get cost of living raises is a lot so in effect a flat budget is less money to work with and as a result, when somebody retired you couldn't replace them; you didn't have the funding to replace them. So it went on for a period of time and then the budget never did come back, straight back up again. And I don't know, have any idea how it is today. But when I retired it was still pretty flat.
Besides decreasing budgets, was there a noticeable change in terms of like atmosphere at the Lab because of the downsizing?
Well the change was that we had a bigger emphasis on bringing in outside funding. There were many years when the Lab basically didn't count on any outside funding at all but in about the last five years I worked there it was a daily routine that you were always looking for outside funding. So I guess that's where the biggest change and you know it added to your workload because as I say you have to write proposals, then if you did get the funding then you have to go and hire student, then you have to supervise students, and you know it keeps adding to the workload. So it's a less pleasant way of doing business in my personal opinion, but that's the way things went.
Did people's attitudes change at all or not really?
I would say to a big degree, no. There are some people that you know they just relish this, they like to chase dollars. A lot of people didn't so some people were probably happier and some people probably sadder, but it wasn't really noticeable.
00:28:31 - 00:30:42 Teaching
teaching, University of Wisconsin, students
Well going back to something that you briefly touched on earlier, you said that you did some teaching with the University here?
Was that something that you continued throughout your career at Forest Products Lab?
Off and on. I would teach an early morning or late afternoon class at the university, sometimes I'd do it both semesters, sometime do it one semester a year. And I wouldn't say that I did it the entire time I was at the Lab, I probably did it for five or ten years I don't know.
And was that something that you particularly enjoyed?
It was a diversion. I don't know if I particularly enjoyed it, I mean it's like anything else, there were certain aspect of it that were enjoyable and certain aspects weren't. Grading students is very hard to do, especially when you have give someone a low grade. So, that was an aspect that wasn't very enjoyable. But seeing people now that you know are in pretty responsible positions, that you kind of tutored is kind of rewarding. Giving an example, the state bridge engineer for the highway department in Wisconsin was a graduate student that worked at the Lab for me. The city engineer of Madison was, was a student of mine. So it was kind of nice to see you know twenty years later people go on to bigger and better things and be successful and you know you had a hand in developing them way back when. So that was the enjoyable part of it.
00:30:42 - 00:31:35 University Of Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin, Forest Products Laboratory, relationship, perception, cooperation
Well as somebody who got kind of experience in both realms, did you ever have a perception of how the relationship between the University and the Forest Products Lab operated and how each felt about each other?
Oh yes. There was a lot of cooperation back and forth in engineering. I can't speak for the other departments in the University but just between the engineering departments and the Lab there was a lot of cooperative research and it was a good relationship between the two.
00:31:35 - 00:33:35 Forest Service
Forest Service, impression, research, national forest, timber products, relationship
Okay. Well maybe just to switch gears a little bit, I had a couple of questions about the Forest Service and was wondering, how do you feel about working for or with an agency that's part of the U.S. Forest Service?
Be honest with you, I don't think we felt we were part of the Forest Service at all in engineering. Our research really wasn't for the national forests, our research really was, well, most of my research went into building codes. It was for the end use of timber products and there were other groups in the Lab you know who worked on forest fires and I don't know what all, but they had a lot more interaction with the Forest Service than we did. In engineering we had virtually very little interaction with the Forest Service, most of our interaction was with the timber industry. So therefore I you know I really never developed any relationships with anybody in the national forest or---you know I met a few people from time to time but never really had any relationships or cooperative research or anything of that nature. So I really never even thought about you know we were the Forest Products Lab you know, never thought that we're part of Forest Service too, it was something that just, we knew existed but didn't think about it too strongly.
00:33:35 - 00:34:21 Memories
memories, stories, posterity
Well just one last question about the Lab itself. Are there any particular memories or stories that you have about your time as an employee at the Lab?
Anything that was outstanding you mean?
Oh I don't know. I don't really think so.
00:34:21 - 00:36:00 Retirement
retirement, causes, reasons
Okay. Well you said that you are now retired. When did you retire and why did you decide to retire?
I retired, let me just think, nine years ago and probably a number of reason why I retired. One is I always like to do something different so I had enough time in that I qualified for all the retirement benefits so I could retire and go do something different, which I did. The second is it was going more and more from a pure research lab to a, what I call, a research management lab, which means that instead of doing the research yourself you go out for outside funding and use the funding either to do cooperative research with another university or hire a graduate student or whatever, but you don't actually do the research yourself. So it was moving in that direction and you know I like the hands on research myself so the Lab was moving in one direction and I was kind of moving in a different direction. I thought well I'm eligible and got other things I want to do so I'll just retire and do them. So, that worked out well for me.
00:36:00 - 00:38:38 Accomplishments
accomplishments, goals, mark, impact, posterity
Do you feel that you accomplished everything that you kind of had set out in life to accomplish career wise? And did FPL help on that goal?
Well I think actually accomplished more than I ever set out to be. All I ever wanted to be was an engineer and I've done that and I've designed a lot of buildings in my life, I'm still designing them. I've been recognized both nationally and internationally with awards and things. I've got way more out of life than I ever thought I'd get. So, as a friend of mine says, when you're in high school did you ever think you'd get this far and I think I got this far. No I had a good life.
Do you feel that your work has left a mark on the Forest Products Lab, the U.S. Forest Service, or even beyond that?
I think so, as I say a lot of our work has been adopted by building codes that are used everyday all throughout the country by architects and engineers. They're still being used, I don't know I assume sometime down the road the next generation will come along and redo them and do a better job than we did but currently what's being used was based a lot on our research. So I think it has made a mark outside of---in society as a whole.
Okay. Well those are pretty much the bulk of my questions that I had, unless you have any other stories, memories, or comments about the Forest Products Lab that you would wish to record for posterity before we go.
No. I was just going to say if you got any other ones you can just give me a call back, if you come up with some questions when you're doing the transcripts and whatnot, if you can find some holes there.
[End of interview]