First Interview Session (August 22, 2008)
Narrator: William T. Simpson
Interviewer: Allison Page
Date: 22 August 2008 (Friday)
Location: Forest Products Laboratory
Transcriptionist: Allison Page
Auditor: Allison Page (11/07/08)
00:00:00 - 00:02:48 Introduction
Introduction, background, education, New York College of Forestry in Syracuse; FPL divisions
Okay, good morning, today is Tuesday August 22, 2008. My name is Allison Page, I'm with the UW-Madison Oral History Program and this morning I will be interviewing Mr. Bill Simpson with the U.S. Forest Products Lab. Uh Mr. Simpson if, if you maybe want to start off by telling us um when and where you were born, a little bit about your education, and what interested you in forest products?
Okay. I was ah born in central New York in a small town named Phoenix, it's near Syracuse, New York. As I grew up I was very close to the state university of New York College of Forestry in Syracuse so I had interest in forestry so it was kind of a natural that I went there for my bachelor of science degree, which I received in 1960. Then I went into the Navy for three years and when I was discharged in 1963 I decided to go back to the College of Forestry in Syracuse for my master's degree. So I did that and then in the summer of 1965 I had a chance to come here to Madison to work for the summer at the Forest Products Laboratory and so I did that. Then I went back to Syracuse to finish up one more year of---or to finish up my master of science degree and the coursework for my PhD---and then in the summer of 1966 I came to the Lab as a full-time employee and I was able to, as part of my regular job at the Forest Products Lab, I was able to work on the research for my PhD, which I then received in 1969. The first three years here at the Laboratory I worked in the adhesives research group, but my main interests were with wood drying and just the overall interaction of wood and water so then I transferred to a group that included that subject matter on wood drying and other issues in wood moisture relationships. So I pretty much stayed in that general area through my career here at the Laboratory and then I retired in March of 2005.
00:02:48 - 00:06:13 FPL, Early Years
FPL, early years; Scarr, Christian; Youngs, Robert L.; initial impressions
Okay. Well going back a little bit to your undergraduate career in New York. Had you heard about the Forest Products Lab prior to that and what were your initial impressions of the Lab?
Well I was not too greatly aware of the Forest Products Laboratory when I started my graduate work but my major professor at Syracuse, Christen Skarr, who was well-known in the field and as a matter of fact just died not too many years ago at the age of ninety plus, still active in the field. Anyways, he was a good friend of a person who eventually became the director of the Lab, Bob Youngs, so through my advisor Chris I was introduced to Bob Youngs and then became aware of the Laboratory and I guess I got a decent recommendation from my major professor that Bob Youngs, you know, actively recruited me.
Initial impressions? That was a long time ago [laughs]. I guess in general, favorable, I was welcomed and the people I worked with were very gracious and helpful to me. One of the things I appreciated right from the start was that I had a fair amount of freedom to, within certain constraints, to choose my own research projects, I wasn't just given a task to do and just without much input of my own and that developed even more so throughout my career as I gained experience and supposedly performed fairly well. I was pretty much given freedom to choose my own research projects, you know again as I say within the certain constraints obviously of the subject matter of the group that I worked with.
So you met Dr. Youngs before you became an employee here. What was he like?
Well he was very friendly. Let's see I think I met him during the school year after I spent the summer here in 1965 then went back to Syracuse and he came to visit the Laboratory and you know we talked to him. He was very friendly and made me feel good in terms of the fact that he made it clear that they were interested in me as an employee. So that was my initial impression of him, I was aware of some of the research that he had done and I had a great respect for that.
00:06:13 - 00:10:38 Early Projects
Early projects, summer employment, master's degree, moisture in wood; colleagues, Constock, Gilbert; Hand, Bob; Weyerhaeuser Company; wood adhesives research group
When you came here in 1965 for the summer work, what kind of activities did you do, what kind of research, who did you work with?
Yeah that you know was a long time ago. At that time I was working on my master of science degree and so, yes, during that summer I did the actual research project for my masters degree, which had to do with when wood absorbs moisture it swells and can create very remarkably large pressures as it swells---as a matter of fact the ancients used to split stones that way by wedging dry wood into a rock I guess you would say and then putting water on it and forcing it to swell up and then it would crack the rock. Anyways that was the subject matter of my research project, I had it pretty well planned out before I came, I knew what I had wanted to do and again, going back to initial impressions of the Laboratory, that the people here were just very helpful in setting up the projects while you do it.
And who did you work with during that time period?
Okay, again let's go back to initial impressions, there was a man here named Gilbert Comstock and I can still remember the day I walked into the Lab that he came out and greeted me and was just friendly, just very helpful. So he kind of helped me along and there was another person here named Bob Hann who was actually the group leader that I worked with. So those two people were---they became good friends and a great deal of respect for them. Gib Comstock, that was---Gilbert was his name but we called him Gib---he went on to very good things, he was hired by Weyerhaeuser Company and rose quite high in the research department and he was just totally respected throughout the whole field. And Bob Hann, he went on to---he was transferred to the Forest Service office in Washington and then he became a station director I guess at the North Central Station and also eventually out at the Pacific Northwest. Those were the two people that sort of took me under their wing when I came here and they both went on to very successful careers.
Well I guess moving along then. You started your actual work as a staff member here in '69? Is that correct?
Right. No, in 1966.
Oh okay. In '66. How did you find out about the position opening? I know you said that they showed interest in you early on. Were you solicited?
Well again going back to this school year between September 1965 and May or June of 1966, Bob Youngs, he made it quite clear that we want to hire you so when it came the time there in the summer of 1966 they created a position and I came to work here. Although the only---because of the bureaucracy of the Forest Service they couldn't hire me in the area where I wanted to work so they created a position for me in this wood adhesives research group. So anyway that's the reason I started in that particular research area and then, as I say, several years later I was able to transfer into the subject more of my interest.
00:10:38 - 00:16:41 FPL
FPL, early years, impressions, bureaucracy, project leaders, technical credit; division transfer, wood drying, interaction of wood and water; Tenwolde, Anton;
Do you have any strong memories or impressions when you started as a staff employee here? Any interesting people that you worked with during that first year?
Yes, right from the start, just green behind the ears, I was assigned a senior technician to work for me and do a lot of the legwork on the studies and that's a strong impression because at the time I didn't fully appreciate it but as years wore on at the Laboratory and we had less and less staff I had less and less high quality technician help. So that was a good start. As a technician that you could pretty much explain what you wanted to do and he could pick it up and take it from there without coming back and you know saying I can't do this or whatever so that was a very good impression. Are you interested in negative impressions too [laughs]?
Sure, whatever you want to share with us.
Well, throughout my whole career here there have been certain project leaders---I'm not going to name any names---but various ones throughout the year and one of the first ones that I had was like that, they didn't do research really. They just, I don't know whether they were incapable or they thought it was beneath their dignity to actually go and do some hands-on research or not, but it was a type of project leader that pretty much sat back in their office and did administrative and bureaucratic duties. Then the worst part of it was that some of them, very few, not many but some of them insisted upon pretty much taking technical credit for anything that came out of the research people in their group. In other words I mean that would come down to putting their---having authorship on research papers where they hadn't done much of anything and that was just very irritating to me. Fortunately I didn't---I like the first project leader I worked for and no project leader ever pulled that on me where I did the work and he insisted upon having his name on it, but I observed that over the years.
Was that common throughout other departments or divisions?
No, I wouldn't say it was common, I mean you know I can just think back of just maybe I don't know three or four people like that. But it was very---if I had to work for a person a like that it would have been very difficult for me to have stayed here.
Did you enjoy your first three years in the adhesives unit? I know it wasn't your field of interest that you had initially---
Oh yeah, definitely, I did. I didn't leave because of the person, the project leader, like I say I liked him I just didn't think he did much in terms of hands-on research. And I enjoyed the work; it wasn't that, it was just that my interests were more in a different area. Plus, again going back to that summer of 1965 I worked here, the two people I worked with, Gib Constock and Bob Hand, they were in this other group and I just liked them and I liked to interact with them so that was another---between the subject matter and the personnel I just wanted to get into that other research group.
So after the adhesives unit you moved into more of a drying group?
Yes, I can't remember the exact name. It was basically kind of two different subject matter areas, one was wood drying and the other was just the general interaction of wood and water, particularly as it applied to housing. At that time both of those subject matters were in one research group, later on they broke them up into two different groups, one was strictly wood drying and one was---I can't remember the name of it but it had to do with moisture issues in housing and I think Anton Tenwolde who retired not too long ago, he headed up that unit and I don't know whether it still exists in that name or not, but anyways actually that's the only one---there is no longer a drying research group that exists anymore. But the one related to housing is still going as far as I know.
And you stayed in that unit then for the remainder of career?
Yes, except there was a point in the mid or late 1980's that the drying group that had existed as a group of its own was then sort of---the work was shifted into another group, a larger group, that included wood drying and several other groups so it no longer had a existence as a research work unit of its own. But yes, I continued in that same general work, yeah, for the rest of my career here.
00:16:41 - 00:21:35 Typical Day, Activities
Typical day, activities; public, answering questions; research projects, phases, technicians, data analysis, research report; Research, hands-on; working with technicians;
Could you maybe describe what a typical day of work here was like? Is there such a thing?
Well I can name some of the typical activities; I don't know whether they certainly all didn't necessarily occur in one day. One thing that all of us did here was answer inquiries from anyone, could be anyone from the general public, just a hobbyist---you know oh I had a tree fall down in my yard, I want to do something with the wood and dry it or something---just answer questions like that, all the way up to wood products industries that were you know having a larger scale technical problem and wanted some advice and suggestions. There were typically those and that was kind of an evolution in how those things were handled. When I first came here all inquires came in by letter, snail mail, and we answered them that way and then it sort of reverted to telephone calls and by the time---when I first came here almost every inquiry came in by letter, a few by telephone, but by the time I, long before I left, we never got a snail mail letter inquiry, it was always email or telephone. Anyways, that's kind of beside the point.
Then as far as the research project, it kind of, there were different phases of it, the first phase of course is you plan a research project. So you have to sit around and think about that and review literature and read and get your thoughts together and maybe talk to other people. Then the next phase is you actually do it, do the research and here there's kind of a fundamental difference in the way different researchers did research. This goes back a little bit to the comments I made about certain types of project leaders, but even non-project leader researchers, there were some that would plan the study, detail out what had to be done, and then just hand that plan to the technicians and do it and where you're done, give me the data. I didn't agree with that, I felt that I needed to get down in the laboratory and get my hands into it and actually do it and see it, appreciate it. So anyways that was my type of involvement in the research project, is I worked with the technicians, I mean I didn't go down there alone but get my hands into it and actually do it. Then the next phase then would be when the project is done and you have the data then you take it up to the office and you analyze it and work with it and try to understand what it means and then write the research report. So that's---I mean you can't---I don't know whether that answers your question about a typical day but that mix of things was the typical day.
Was hands on research something that you strove for throughout your career?
So in that kind of capacity did you work pretty close with the technicians?
Most of the time, yeah, some studies more alone, some studies more with a technician. But it was a combination of me and the technician, yeah.
What was the relationship between the technicians and the scientists here? Was there ever friction or was it very cooperative?
Well I think it depends on the particular people. I certainly heard tales of and kind of observed obvious friction between certain technicians and certain researchers. But in other cases I don't think there was any friction between the technicians I worked with. So I think there was some cases there was friction and others there wasn't. It just I think depended on the specific personalities.
00:21:35 - 00:25:40 Travel, Conference Presentations
Travel, conference presentations; collaborations, solar energy, United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development, Asia; FPL reception, international; visitors, international
Moving on a little bit. Did any of the projects that you worked on or your job in general, did anything ever take you out of the office? Did you do any traveling and if so, where did you go?
Yes I had an opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling, one type of traveling would of course be to go to professional meeting where you listen to other people describe their research and presented your own. So you know that went on throughout the career, several times a year. Then starting in the late 1970's and through the mid '80's there was a lot of interest in solar energy for drying lumber and so we got hooked up with several international agencies, the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development. So I got to go to Asia quite a few times to work on projects where we helped them build and test solar kilns so I was able to travel to the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and China. That was probably one of the most fascinating parts of my career is being able to see these different societies and work with the people there and what not. At graduate school at Syracuse one of my very good friends there was a person from Thailand that was working on his PhD also so I was able to hook up with him several times when I traveled to Thailand.
Do you have any memories that stand out in your mind about travels abroad and what was the reception of the international community regarding the Forest Products Lab?
It was very good, I mean we were highly respected and sometimes I felt embarrassed with sort of the red carpet treatment that we received. I'll tell you what embarrassed me about it is because in several of these countries that I visited, whatever the institution was I mean the first thing go up and see the head person, my host would take me to see whoever was in charge of the whole works there and I mean it was very gracious treatment. But then I look back at the people that come and visit our lab, they don't get to see the director unless they are some highly placed person. Anyways, my point is I think I received a much more gracious reception when I visited these countries than the typical foreign visitor gets when he comes here and that did kind of bother me.
Were there a lot of visitors from the research community that came here for work and did you work with any people from the international community?
Yes, I worked with several from Africa that came here and Indonesia, China---several from China, and that was very interesting too---and Sri Lanka, there was a couple that came here. Yes, that was a good experience when those people came here and did a research project and I sort of helped guide them along.
00:25:40 - 00:31:29 Projects, Satisfaction
Projects, satisfaction; solar lumber drying; invasive insects, Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Longhorn Beetle; projects, challenging; different properties of wood, drying times and processes;
Well kind of returning to your work here at the Lab. Is there one job or project in your career here that gave you the most satisfaction? Conversely is there one that was particularly challenging or frustrating?
Well, I can think of a couple that were particularly good. One was this---the international work related to solar lumber drying, we helped build a couple of solar kilns, one in Sri Lanka and one in Burma and to see those actually built and then working, that was gratifying. I think the other thing that was more recently there's been issues about invasive insects, there's one going on right night now, the Emerald Ash Borer, but before that there were several others---what was it, the Asian Longhorn Beetle back in the late 90's and early 2000's---anyways I got into making analysis. One of the common ways to kill these insects is heat sterilization treatments so I got into some work where given all the variables that are involved in how long it takes to heat a piece of wood up to a certain temperature, developing some analysis to try to estimate that. The heat treatments specifications are usually that some particular configuration of wood has to be heated to a certain temperature in the center and then held for a certain length of time to kill the insect. So given the wide range of configurations of wood, anywheres from a log to board or---there's a lot of variables that determine the time it takes to heat that center to certain temperature. So that was the analysis, is to try to use some heat transfer theory to develop ways to estimate these times. That worked out pretty well and there were people that used it so that was definitely satisfying.
Now something that didn't work out too well? [short pause] Oh yeah there was one. Certain kinds of woods, certain species like the pines that grow in the south, which are commercially very important for structural lumber to build houses with---much of that is grown in plantations and it grows very fast and because it grows fast there is a large proportion of any tree---it's what they call juvenile wood, it has slightly different physical properties than slower growing, more mature wood---one of the consequences of that is that as it's dried it distorts and twists and bends up into shapes that make it unusable. So I worked in several studies where instead of drying the lumber in a dry kiln, which could take anywheres from one day to several days depending on the kind of wood, a process where we dried in a hot press. I wanted to get two advantages out of that, one was because of the heat transfer from the heat of the hot press to the wood; the wood could be dried in maybe just two hours as opposed to anywheres from twenty-four hours to three days. The other thing was to hold it in place while it's drying so it can't distort. So I did several studies on that and the results were somewhat promising, I mean obviously the very fast drying times were there and there was definitely some improvement in the stability, in other word less distortion, during the drying. There were a few problems with it, some other problems, but all in all it looked like it might have potential for someone to develop it further but nothing really ever happened to it. I did have one company in California that was interested and was trying doing a little bit with it, but I know they got started but I never heard whether they took it very far so I was disappointed that it didn't develop into anything further. So other than that things were pretty much on an even keel I guess.
00:31:29 - 00:35:11 Colleagues
Colleagues, memories, Constock, Gob; Hand, Bob; social activities
Well kind of moving to some of the social aspects of working at the Lab. I know we touched a little bit on this. Are there any colleagues that you have strong memories of throughout your career? Any interesting characters that worked at the Lab that you remember?
Yeah, well I mentioned two, Gib Comstock and Bob Hann. I wouldn't call them characters, I mean they were---I just had a great deal of---I liked them very much, we got along well and I have a great deal of respect and affection for them. If you want to get into characters there was a researcher that I had worked with and did a lot of coop studies with the solar drying, I worked with him on that, but he was a---a character is a good way to put it. Extremely intelligent, but unable or unwilling to carry through things, I mean he would do a research study and gather the data but to try to get him to write the report was---I mean it was almost impossible. I supervised him for a while and I just tearing my hair out trying to get him to you know carry his research through to the final product, which you know, that's our job is after we've done the work is to put it into a coherent form so someone else can some benefit out of it. But he just---it was terrible to try to get him to do that and I mean it was frustrating because, like I say, he was very, very intelligent person but just couldn't carry through. [long pause]. I can't think of anyone else here now that stands out. [long pause]. Well I guess I can't think of anything more than.
Well I've heard a little bit about some of the activities provided by the Lab for like social gatherings among staff members. Do you have memories of any of these activities or were you a participant in any of them?
Some of them, not a great deal. I know early on here there was, and maybe still is, an FPL bowling league, I was in that for several years. That was probably about it other than you know occasionally there would be groups that would go out to lunch or something together. But I guess I didn't participate greatly in the Lab social activities, I guess I felt that I had two lives here, I have my home life and I guess I kind of like to keep that separate from my professional life. So I didn't participate in too many of the social activities.
00:35:11 - 00:41:47 Forest Service
Forest Service, perceptions, personal, collaboration with FPL; Forest Service, politics, management, special interest groups; Forest Service, impressions, public; FPL, impressions, public
Okay. Well maybe moving on to talk a little bit about the U.S. Forest Service. How do you feel about having worked for or with an agency that's part of the U.S. Forest Service?
Well what one of the problems working here is that we are---I guess for most of my career I didn't really identify too much with working for the U.S. Forest Service because we are kind of one tiny separate part of it, I mean it's almost like we are not in the main stream of the Forest Service---this is just my perception, I may be wrong. The Forest Service connotes to me, you know, the forest out in the woods, csilvaculture, and watershed and wildlife---that to me is the Forest Service, but here of course we are just working with the properties of wood, which just seems to me kind of sort of a backwater area of the Forest Service. Although I think in more recent years the Lab has tried to integrate itself more into the rest of the Forest Service, in other words strengthen our working relationship with the rest of the Forest Service. So I don't know a lot of the broader Forest Service issues.
One of the things that bothers me particularly---this is just my political orientation---is that I feel that the Forest Service leaders, they work for the administration and they have to do what the administration says, but I sometimes I wonder if they don't prostitute themselves a little bit and you know the boss says go out and cut down this forest when it's not environmentally maybe such a good thing to do and they just get their marching orders and have to do what they are told even though maybe deep down they know it's not the best policy in terms of the health of our forests. From of the more personal standpoint I visit Utah quite often, my wife and I like the desert and the forests there, and out there in the West, not just Utah, but much of the land is owned by the Forest Service and other federal agencies so there is a much greater awareness of the citizenry out there of what's going on on this public land. We see the Forest Service, and even more so the Bureau of Land Management, just caving in to special interests like the people that have these all-terrain vehicles that just want to run roughshod over any land out there, they are very vocal and they go to the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and sound off and get their way. The same with the oil and gas leasing, we just feel that the public agencies are just caving in to the special interests because our present administration wants things to go that way. So I better not get into too much politics here.
Well kind of along those lines, were these impressions that you have always held about the Forest Service or has it changed over time?
No, just in recent years. I just didn't have that level of awareness in my earlier years of what was going on.
How do you think the general public views the Forest Service or the Forest Products Lab for that matter?
[long pause]. Well the people that are aware of that the Forest Products Laboratory even exists, you know I think we have a very high standing, I mean after all we pretty much created the database of wood properties and the efficiencies in processing and use. So I think people that are aware of the Forest Products Laboratory have a very high opinion of it. I don't know that people in the Eastern part of the country have that much of an awareness of the Forest Service. Like I say, in the Western U.S. so much of the land is public and a lot of national forest that the local people are aware of what is going on. You know some of them don't like what the Forest Service is doing, and maybe some of them do, but there is more awareness than I think easterners where there is---well there are some national forest in northern Wisconsin and there is one in Pennsylvania, West Virginia---but there is much, much less land as far as the Forest Service owns so I just don't think the Forest Service is so much on the radar screen of the general citizenry of the East.
00:41:47 - 00:45:46 Retirement
Retirement, reasons, activities, wood lathe; research projects, consulting
Well maybe switching gears and talking a little bit about your career here. I think you said earlier that you retired in March 2005?
Okay. Why did you decide to retire and what have you been doing since?
Well, I had a big life change then, my first wife died about it will be close to twelve years ago now. So about five years ago I had met a woman and we decided to get married so I just thought it was time to move on to a different life before I got so old that all I could do is go home and sit in a chair. I've been here quite a few years so you know I had a good retirement, I just wanted to change my lifestyle so I did. One of the things that I've done since I retired is I started working with turning wood items on a lathe---I don't know whether you familiar with that or not. But I've always thought wood was a very beautiful material and I spent most of my career on the sort of dry, scientific, technical aspect of it so I thought I would want to get more to the aesthetic nature of wood so I bought a wood lathe, then started turning bowls and vases and various other things that you can turn on a lathe. I mean I really like it, it's very enjoyable to start with a dirty, ugly chunk of log and open it up on a lathe and then start to see the beautiful grain and figure and color of the wood, and then turn it into something like a bowl or a vase. So I've started doing that several years ago and my wife and I just this summer started getting into craft fairs so we've been to four or five already this year. It was very gratifying to see the people actually buy some of the stuff I make. Anyways, that's sort of a shift in my working with wood into just a---what is it? The left brain instead of the right brain, or vice versa, or whatever.
Yeah it's fun.
Do you still maintain any relationships with people or past colleagues here at the Lab?
Yes. I have in the last---the first couple of years I retired I just wanted to get away and start something different, but yeah in the past year I have been working with a couple of people here on a research project. I've come in and helped them plan it and do it, and I really enjoy that. I don't know how much more I will in the future, maybe some, I don't want to very much but I like to keep contact here, keep my hand in it a little bit.
00:45:46 - 00:51:02 Career Impact
Career impact, heat sterilization, solar kiln technology, accomplishments; final comments
Do you feel that your work here has left a mark on the Forest Products Lab, the U.S. Forest Service, or the USDA? Even beyond that?
Well I hope so. The work on heat sterilization, I think that, if I've left any mark, that might have been the best one. And you know we helped develop some of the solar dry kiln technology and as I say some of the things that a person does may not even be picked up on for many years, like for example that press drying work, I don't know whether---maybe someone in the future will pick up on that and try to carry it a little further. So you never know for sure what mark you might make on some things.
Do you feel that you have accomplished everything you set out [to do] in terms of your career?
Yeah, I think so. That was I think one of the reasons that led me to retirement, I thought I've done a lot of the things I wanted to try, there was one study that I wanted to do before I retired, but that required the shops here to build a piece of equipment and it just didn't get done and I finally gave up on it and couldn't wait any longer and retired. Although one of the two people I said I've done a little work with since I retired, they carried through the study and did finally finish it up. But [short pause] I think lumber drying research has been going on for many, many years and you should never say that everything has been done that needs to be done, but you can sort of say well how much more drying research needs to be done, it's been carried out for many, many years and a lot of very good drying work has been done here at the Laboratory before my time. I saw that reflected in the sort of demise of wood drying as a research group of its own. At one time I think there were four of us that were working in drying and then as they retired they didn't replace them with an expertise because you know, frankly there is---given the budgets that the Laboratory has I can understand that they---there are so many other areas that they don't want to concentrate so many on a research area were there is less and less that needs to be done. I think they hired one person in drying just about the time I left so I think probably the Laboratory will pretty much go with just one person in drying.
Well that's pretty much the end of my questions. Do you have any other stories, memories, or comments about your time here that you would like to record for posterity?
I can't think of anything too specific other than I can say that I had a very enjoyable and satisfying career here. I don't regret for a second having spent all the years I did here, all in all it's a good place to work---far from perfect, I mean everyone grumbles a little bit about where they work---but all in all I found it a very good place to work and I just hope it can hang on in these times of shrinking budgets other priorities. So I guess I can't think of anything else.
Okay. Well thank you.
[End of interview]