DEVILS LAKE - Even though he's only one state over, Paul Gunderson has come a long way from his childhood on a Minnesota dairy farm, and not even retirement has been able to slow him down.
Gunderson was raised on the family dairy farm in Ada, Minn., about 60 miles northeast of Moorhead, Minn., and neighboring Fargo. He earned a Ph.D. in education at the University of Minnesota with major areas of study in business administration, statistics and epidemiology, a discipline that studies the origin and progression of disease in a population. The study of epidemiology can focus on either human or animal populations, and Gunderson chose humans because that was his area of interest.
As Gunderson was completing his education in the 1960s, an important event happened to him and his wife, Harriet. They went to the South Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, which is just north of Australia, for four years.
Dan Feldner/MDN • Paul Gunderson, director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, sits in his office Tuesday with his favorite agricultural publication, Feedstuffs, on his desk.
"I spent four years there teaching high school students and it profoundly affected us because it was obvious the longer we worked there that the bigger task before us was not so much teaching students, it was keeping them alive due to the injury, the infectious disease and the other disease conditions, particularly malaria," he said.
Gunderson caught malaria about six times, and while his wife never had that particular disease she did experience many other health issues, including open sores on her body.
"One of the things that happens in the tropics is the fungi and spore growth is so virulent that if you nick your skin, often an infection will set in because spores will attach - you don't even know it's happened," Gunderson said. "And that's particularly true for the ankles and the feet."
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The couple came back from that trip with the realization that world health matters were an important issue to them. As Gunderson completed his master's degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and then his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, he began to shift into the world of public health. He made the shift completely in 1974 when he took his first position with the Minnesota Department of Public Health. Later in the 1970s he took over the Minnesota Center for Health Statistics and Epidemiology, a statewide surveillance arm for public health. At the same time he went on faculty at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and remained there until the end of 1991.
While in Minnesota Gunderson also put together a farmstead to give his children the same agricultural experiences he had growing up. The farm would eventually grow to 320 acres under cultivation, with corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa as the primary rotation.
"And then we had purebred Hereford cattle as our cattle enterprise. The beef enterprise is one you can do part-time because you've got some give and take on feeding times and what needs to get done every day," Gunderson said. "With dairy, that's a different story altogether. You're pretty well locked into a fixed schedule."
He needed that flexibility of schedule because of all his work in academics and public health, so the beef cattle were a great fit. About the only thing he didn't like about it was the cold weather he had to endure in the winter.
After starting the farm in 1977, Gunderson finally had to give it up and had a dispersal auction in 1991 when he moved to take a new position in Wisconsin.
"Emotionally the most difficult thing I've ever done was to have that auction," Gunderson. "The morning of the auction came and boy was it tough to watch that stuff go down the road."
It was during his time on the farm in Minnesota that he worked on one of the important studies of the 1900s, which was on suicide among farmers across five states - Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Continuous surveillance was done from 1977 to 1990 for suicide on farms and ranches.
Gunderson noted that unlike ranchers, farmers, particularly males, have a higher incidence of suicide than virtually every other male profession other than police officers.
"That's a pretty consistent pattern across time," Gunderson said. "In fact, in states like North Dakota more farmers will die from self-inflicted injury than from injury from agricultural equipment."
In looking for a cause of the increased suicide rate among farmers, Gunderson determined it was related to pesticide usage because the pattern of suicides took place in late spring and early summer.
He noted most other male suicides tend to group around pre-Thanksgiving to post-New Year, then again in February and March, which is early spring.
"But that wasn't the case with producers," Gunderson said. "Suicide events were clustering in late spring and early summer."
Gunderson said some pesticides have a tendency to depress the chemical in the brain that retards depressive symptomology. While pesticide usage might not have been the entire problem, Gunderson felt it was a big piece of the puzzle.
Needless to say, chemical manufacturers were less than pleased with the study's findings. Gunderson said he also got drastically different reactions from two major farm groups as well, with the National Farmers Union saying it had known all along the conclusions he came to were exactly right, while the American Farm Bureau Federation told Gunderson he was full of it, to put it politely.
"So two different perspectives from within production agriculture itself," Gunderson said. "Two totally different perspectives in terms of the study results."
He left Minnesota in 1991 to become director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wis., and also became director of the Marshfield Medical Research & Education Foundation, which was the largest private sector medical research foundation in the nation. He was director of the medicine center from 1991-1996 and again from 1998-2000, while he was director of the foundation for seven years.
Even after retiring from those positions and moving to Harvey, where his wife's parental farm was, in 2000, he continued to remain active in the field of public health, including chairing peer review mechanisms for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recently he wrapped up peer review mechanisms for the National Academy of Sciences.
"I think I'm the only sitting scientist in North Dakota that chairs panels for the National Academy of Sciences," Gunderson said. "I don't know of anyone else that's doing it here in North Dakota, and there aren't very many North Dakota scientists that serve on panels."
His retirement from academics didn't last, either. The president of Lake Region State College in Devils Lake contacted him in 2004 about helping them with grantsmanship, and he agreed. Since he lives near Harvey, the commute to Devils Lake is 64 miles one way, but that doesn't seem to bother Gunderson very much. Of course no one, not even Gunderson, can be everywhere at once, so something had to give.
He had been interested in parish ministry ever since the 1950s and had done it when time allowed through all of his various jobs. In North Dakota Gunderson had devoted more time to it because the need was so great. So after taking the position Lake Region State College he left parish ministry full-time and went part-time, which he still does to this day.
"I love parish ministry, that was fun," Gunderson said. "I could return to that in a heartbeat, but it just seems like this is the place to be at this point."
Then in 2006 he became director of the college's Dakota Precision Ag Center, which was first funded that year as one of North Dakota's Centers of Excellence under Gov. John Hoeven. Initially a research program was launched exploring the fiscal and technical impacts of the use of precision ag technologies, and the ag center's mission has only grown since then.
He also mentioned during the 2003-2004 school year he taught a physics class at Harvey High School when it was in danger of not being offered because of the lack of a qualified teacher.
"I had a great year teaching physics at Harvey," he said. "Would have done more with it, actually, had I not come here (to the college)."
Retirement certainly hasn't slowed Gunderson down, and he plans to stay active as long as his health allows. That's not only good for him, it's good for the many communities he's involved with, as well.
"I've always have to have something to do. Retirement has been good. I've been able to contribute in ways that, if someone would have told me when we moved in April of 2000 that this is what I'd be doing today, I would have said no, I think you're nuts. I think you're dreaming," Gunderson said. "But that's not the case at all. Plenty of work to do, and as I've told folks around here, the day that you tell me I'm in the way, that'll be just fine. I'll go do something else."