Forty cuddly stuffed mascots, 395 pasties, 41 Golden M inductees. Michigan Tech Alumni Reunion draws a record number of graduates, family and friends to honor the past and see what’s new at their University.
Across campus, schools and departments hosted gatherings for their alumni. The School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science shared then-and-nows—axes to chainsaws, horse-drawn wagons to bulldozers, range poles to GPS—at an open house on Friday and a Saturday morning brunch.
Ralph Swanson vividly remembers his graduation day. "When I got my diploma, they said step over to the next table." The 97-year-old 1942 forestry graduate received his ROTC commission in the Army Corps of Engineers. Three days later he was deployed with Patton’s Army.
Swanson's wife Harriet, who also turns 97 this year, and two of their three sons, Skip and Ron (they also have an older daughter), made the trip from the couple’s lake home in Wisconsin.
Harriet, a US Army nurse, arrived in Normandy a couple of days after the epic 1944 storming of the beaches and followed the troops to Paris. She served in England, France and Germany; his tour of duty took him to England, Africa and Italy. They met after the war.
As members of what Tom Brokaw dubbed The Greatest Generation can attest, the post-war influx of workers created a competitive job market. But Husky tenacity is nothing new.
"I got on Highway 13 going south and stopped at every paper mill," Ralph recalls. "I went to work for Emmett Hurst (Consolidated Papers). He and Don Sherman (Tech’s legendary athletic director) were good friends. They would check in to see how I was doing."
Harriet and Ralph, married 71 years, continue to run a lively household that welcomes family and friends. Ask them the secret to a long marriage (they finish each other's sentences), and they paraphrase a line from iconic comedian Red Skelton. "Once a week we go out to lunch—she goes to her restaurant, and I go to mine."
Besides Ralph's 75-year anniversary, the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science celebrated a trio of Golden M inductees—that's the select club for Michigan Tech graduates of a half-century ago or longer—along with Arden "Mick" Mikich, 60 years; and Jack Zollner, 65 years. (Robert Borak, another 65th anniversary Husky, did not attend.)
Relationships that Last
Throughout the weekend Michigan Tech alumni were interviewed about how the University prepared them for their careers. Videos will be shared on the Alumni and Friends Facebook page, as well as via Michigan Tech Career Services. But friendship is what 1978 forestry grads Barbara Bennett and Sherie Gibson find most noteworthy about their time at Tech. "We made lifelong friends," Gibson says. Their group, a cross-section of majors, tries to get together at least every five years. Asked if they lived on or off campus, Bennett, now a Marquette resident, says students didn’t have much choice: Tech was bursting at the seams during record enrollment years. "We had to get off campus," says Gibson, a retired reading specialist who divides her time between a Keweenaw home and a boat in Mexico.
History Lessons and Campus Changes
Another common thread that brings alumni back: they crave firsthand updates.
"I come up every two or three years," says 1969 alumnus Tom Newhouse. "I like to see what's new in research, keep up with the buildings and changes in programs." The mechanical engineering grad and John Deere retiree had just finished visiting A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum and walking through the Student Development Complex before he joined the SFRES branding party, where the smell of burning wood on a cool afternoon lent a campfire atmosphere—hot coals and stamping of wood circles cut from salvaged trees that fell victim to the emerald ash borer. The uniquely Tech mementoes were given out at the School’s open house, and a group brunch at Nara Nature Center on Saturday morning.
"I had to tell them, we would never brand wood," says Jack Zollner, who graduated in 1952, "just about the time the chainsaw came in. You had to twist the handle to keep the carburetor level." He spent 30 years in forest management in the Upper Peninsula, including running the sawmill at Camp Alberta, where research is conducted and Michigan Tech students go for field classes.
"I worked with a crew in the cedar swamps of Schoolcraft County, making hand-hewn ties. Exciting for me, being a young punk, to see them swinging with broadaxes close to their feet. They had an ice road, stayed there all winter."
"Horse teams, camps and cross-cut saws—before bulldozers and chainsaws. It was kinda fun watching that evolve."
The most magnificent tree he ever saw was cloistered in an inaccessible swamp, "Seven thousand board feet in one tree."
Zollner, who lives in Iron Mountain and hails from the Detroit area, chuckles when asked why he chose Michigan Tech. "When I got out of the service, I wanted to go logging and engineering in Oregon. There were no openings. I had to go to Soo Tech in the old Fort Brady barracks." Those were the days when the University offered a two-year program on the east end of the UP. Students then transferred to the main campus.
A Reunion for All Ages
"This is more of a life choice than a career," says 2000 graduate Justin Miller, who received the School's Alumnus of the Year award. "We do it because we love it. We love what we do." President of Green Timber Consulting Foresters, Miller employs other Tech alumni in stewardship of regional forests, educates young people about natural resources careers, and participates in cleanups to help maintain the School's more than 60-year-old Otter River Camp. He previously won the Young Alumni award, which this year goes to Amber Oja, a 2012 alumna. The Weyerhaeuser Michigan GIS (geographic information system) and GPS coordinator recruits interns for the company, and is Upper Peninsula vice-chair for the Society of American Foresters. Oja graduated with a double major in forestry and wildlife ecology and management is pursuing her MBA at Tech.
"We’re Number Five in the country in natural resources education, the smallest university in the Top 10. The people that we graduate—you create that."
"I’m so pleased with the way our graduates are making a difference in the industry," says Ralph Swanson.