Bob Underwood's life seems to have come full circle when he recently took a job with the Minot Forestry Department after spending close to two decades teaching at Dakota College at Bottineau.
Born and raised in Illinois, Underwood grew up on a farm and went to Southern Illinois University to pursue his dream after graduating from high school in 1965.
"I was going to be a forester, be on a first-name basis with Smokey the Bear, you know?" Underwood said.
Dan Feldner/MDN •
Bob Underwood, crew leader for the Minot Forestry Department, works at the site of a massive cottonwood tree being cut down for safety reasons in Eastwood Park Tuesday, while the rest of his crew is on break. Underwood was a professor at Dakota College at Bottineau for a number of years before retiring and taking a job with the Minot Forestry Department.
He studied forestry and resource management, graduating in 1969. Although there were several reasons he began graduate school right away, one in particular stands out.
"I started grad school immediately because you could have five years of deferments from the draft," he said with a laugh. "And after my fifth year I got drafted. So I was in the Army for a little over a year and a half, got to see beautiful Southeast Asia and some other spots."
After getting out of the Army and not quite finishing his master's degree, Underwood started his own tree business in 1973. He had worked as a climber for a tree company a couple years while in college, and found he loved the job.
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"I got hooked on residential tree care," he said. "I was the one that got up in the tree and did all the rigging out of the branches over the houses and fences and garages and gardens and flower beds - everything people wanted missed."
He ran the company until 1984, when he took a job as campus arborist at Western Illinois University. He enjoyed the job and was even able to finish his master's degree there in recreation and park administration in 1988. In 1991, Underwood found an opportunity to put his master's degree to good use.
"I saw an ad in the local district forester's office that NDSU-Bottineau at the time was looking for an urban forestry instructor. I thought for sure an instructor would probably make more than grounds workers did," Underwood said. "So I applied for the job, and 12 years later I got back up to the wages I was making as a grounds worker."
Although the money wasn't what he expected, Underwood nonetheless enjoyed the job tremendously and taught full time until the spring of 2009, then worked half time this year when he was technically retired. He still teaches the online forestry program, which is composed of about nine classes.
"I enjoy it because I'm working mostly with people that are in the field and are just wanting to improve their position, get a raise or promotion or something of that sort," he said. "They've got the experience that when I say something, they've seen it, and so it makes a little more sense to them. And then since they're all over the United States and the world really I learn a lot from them."
Underwood had never held a job as long the one in Bottineau, and he eventually became burned out a bit with teaching in a classroom setting. After learning of an opening in the Minot Forestry Department, Underwood originally gave the information to a student who didn't show much interest. So Underwood applied for the job himself and became the forestry department's new forestry technician a little over a month ago.
His new job lasted all of two days.
With the retirement of the department's crew leader, city forester Brian Johnson promoted Underwood to the position. Underwood's job now entails deciding what the crew will do for the day and ensuring the proper equipment is brought to the job site.
Underwood loves being able to work outdoors on the job site most days after being confined to a classroom for close to two decades. His early-life experience doing that same type of work has also come in quite handy.
"Since I've had a little more experience with rigging some of the big stuff, I like to think I'm an asset to a job like that," he said.
He also does some of the homeowner inquiries for Johnson, which is another area where his vast experience has proved invaluable.
"If he (Johnson) can't figure it out, he'll call me. If I can't figure it out, I call him," Underwood said. "It works out pretty good because you get two people, you think of something, the other person thinks of something you didn't. So it makes it a good combination that way."
Underwood said he really enjoyed his time teaching at Bottineau, liked his students - mostly - and still hears from a few of them on occasion.
Even though he's no longer in the classroom and just handles a few online classes, Underwood is still able to teach and learn while also working in the outdoors setting he's loved for so many years.
In June he was invited to provide some training in Montana for a tree company one of his online students works for. He gave about three days of talks and was able to wander around just looking at different trees.
"I enjoy doing that, get out, see something different," he said.
Other trips Underwood has been fortunate enough to take include being invited to Moscow in 2003 with all but $200 of his expenses paid to share his experience in North American tree care and learn how they did things over there.
Even though the odometer on his body has no doubt turned over a time or two, he still loves climbing, making his vacation to California this past summer even more exciting because he had the opportunity to climb a giant redwood tree. He did have one regret, however. They had to pick out a "little" 200-footer because they didn't have permission for a 300-footer. Underwood said he could only get 175 feet up on that tree before thick branches made further ascension impossible.
"That's something I've always wanted to do, and (there were) different climbing techniques than I'm used to here," he said, noting his usual tactic of throwing a rope over the first branch to start the climb didn't really work all that well with the redwood because its first branch was 125 feet off the ground.
And of course he still does some teaching within the forestry department for both new employees and seasoned veterans - even the city forester himself.
Underwood enjoys his role as a crew leader and doesn't want any more promotions. He gets to work in the great outdoors like he used to all those years ago while still being able to draw on his long years of experience to teach those around him. For Underwood, it truly is the best of both worlds.
"I've been lucky. I liked the tree work as soon as I got into it in '67, and so for 43 years I've been doing what I liked," he said. "Anytime you can do that, it's a good job."