Schooling For Life

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
   By Dick Pellek


Schooling for Life

The importance of school can never be forgotten.  Having the opportunity to attend school should not be taken for granted, and the Footloose Forester was more blessed than most people.  Perhaps he did take school for granted in his early youth, but not afterward when he saw for himself how a lack of schooling impacted the great majority of people he met in the Third World.  It comes as no casual decision to include some ideas on schools and schooling into these personal memoirs. There are lessons he wants to remember, and hopefully share with anyone interested in pursuing the topic of education.

He hopes that his approach to the subject matter is not too preachy, not too boastful, not too smug, and will not be resented. That caution is necessary to mention largely because far too many people have resented him, his opportunities, and his educational background. Resentment was clear even among members of his own family, so rather than a spirit of pride that usually prevails within family situations, some of the time there was a current of resentment, plain and simple. Despite that soreness and the ever-present potential for an almost instant reaction within the family or among colleagues at various jobs in the past, the Footloose Forester wants to take that risk in order to share a few memoirs that might resonate; or help to inspire someone, anyone, in some positive way.

Let it be stated clearly, the Footloose Forester has a second-class brain but a first-class determination to succeed.  Yes, he was first in his class (the Honor Graduate) at St. Michaels School in Netcong, New Jersey, but even then when he looked at his report cards and noticed that the numerous B and B+ grades suggested that he just wasn't all that smart. Family praise was always in short supply during the grammar school years, so going home with a B+ in arithmetic when it had been an A- the previous marking period was never a cheerful thought.  Nor was he overly smart in high school. The struggle to earn good grades was pretty much the same as in grammar school, with basically the same results, B+ or A- most of the time.  What did not change was his determination to use whatever talents he was given, and any opportunities that he could take advantage of, or develop as much as he was able, and to move forward and make the most of his life. When he graduated from high school he was not at the top of his class but did win acknowledgment from his peers as being the most studious.

From the time he was about 15 or 16 he knew that he wanted to be a forester, and he knew that a college education was required. That was why he saved his money, to pay for tuition and books. We were lower-middle class (translation: poor) as a family. Seven kids and a father who worked two jobs for a dozen straight years without slowing down, so the idea of his parents paying for college was out of the question. If there was one thing that the future Footloose Forester thought about, it was that life did not owe him anything, at any time.

That knowledge about the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots” was perhaps learned in religious studies, perhaps augmented in selected reading, and perhaps in asking questions; but that idea was an unshakable belief from an early age.  So saving his money for college was a choice that he made early in life. 

Saving money began when he started working at age 10: as a paperboy, then as a pinsetter, a part-timer janitor, a milkman, and other jobs. That is not to say that all savings were for college.  He knew that it would take a lot more, but was willing to cross those bridges when he came to them.  By the time he was ready for his freshman year, and after two summer jobs paying the handsome income of $65 a week for 65 hours of work, he had saved $1100.  That was enough for one year at Rutgers, if he was able to get campus jobs to keep up with future expenses; and if he could pass the College Entrance Exam to gain acceptance. 

The main point of writing into memoirs the theme of the personal education of the Footloose Forester is to share the idea that it was possible to get to college and to stay in college if you are determined. The nagging repetition of the resentment of those who never attended college has never gone away, so he had a lifetime of choosing how he discussed the topic, even among his family members.

Although others may have assumed that he got financial help from his parents, the truth is that he remembers getting a total of two $20 bills from his mother. Nothing more, ever. That was during his Freshman year at Rutgers. It was a reminder then that we were poor and a reminder always that he was blessed beyond imagination for the continued successes that he now looks back on.


Old Queens at Rutgers, built in 1809

A good life is not guaranteed to anyone. Seeing the sunshine tomorrow is not promised to any man, woman, or child. The remarkable fact is that he was able to graduate from Rutgers despite the financial burdens that ensued.  “Where there is a will there is a way” was one theme that he lived by and really believed. It was one of the maxims taught to him by his mother.  By the way, he failed math—twice and General Chemistry before overcoming those setbacks.  In his second year at Rutgers, however, he received a state scholarship for $300 and in his third and fourth years, he was awarded an H.W. Herbert scholarship for $200 each year. Working at odd jobs and summer jobs produced just about enough to get by, but he did get by. In his senior year, a banker friend offered to provide him, out of the blue, with a loan of $500.

The man knew that his family was still poor, and that man himself had graduated from Rutgers, so he himself knew that paying for college was far beyond what most people think it costs. The Footloose Forester accepted the offer and paid it back within a year of graduation. He will forever be grateful for that unsolicited gesture of trust. He hopes that others will follow that example of encouragement and make similar gestures of support. Those experiences of offering a helping hand to the Footloose Forester in his time of need are reasons why he paid back all of the scholarship contributions in full and continues to donate to higher education programs like ones of which he was a direct beneficiary.  Sometimes the world seems to be impersonal, but he knows that many undergraduates and even grad students whom he encounters are in college only with the help of someone who cared enough to take a chance on them.      

Seeking a Masters's degree at the University of Florida was a natural extension of his belief that he was woefully unprepared to speak and practice as a forester in the Third World, his choice as a career path. Rather than to project a phony self-effacement when he told people he was ignorant, he just reminded them and himself that he and they were entirely ignorant of places they had never been, and of the languages and cultures that were awaiting them there.  Tropical Forestry was his quest, and he sought to mitigate his ignorance of the tropics through a course of study. His ignorance of the tropics was almost total, but that was also part of the challenge.

A part of the acceptance process was, however, getting through the Graduate Records Exam.  So although he knows he is still ignorant about most things, universities generally don’t accept candidates whom they deem unqualified.  He still had a second class brain but he still retained his determination to make the most of every opportunity. Taking the Graduate Records Exam cold turkey in Viet Nam was the only opening he saw at the time, but it was providential.

Florida gave him a tuition-waiver scholarship; otherwise, that aspect of an educational quest was a further investment in the limited talents that God had given him at birth. Thanks to the Organization for Tropical Studies, he later got a fellowship to study tropical forest science in Costa Rica.  That experience led to his choosing a Master’s thesis topic with field study in Trinidad. The title of his thesis was “Site Factors Associated with the Growth of Teak Plantations in Trinidad.”       

The happy years at the University of Hawaii came about mostly because nobody offered him a job when he graduated from the University of Florida. The old expression, “get a good degree and you can write your own ticket” is a myth and always has been a myth.  It is a convenient explanation among those who believe that getting to where you are going is a matter-of-fact trip when you are one of those privileged college types who has a rich daddy to set you up; and somewhere along the way somebody puts a ticket to success into your hand.  The Footloose Forester didn’t have a rich daddy, but he did have a solid role model of a father who showed him what hard work and determination could achieve. If a typical ticket is imprinted on paper, the ticket to success can easily be ripped up.

Truth be told, the Footloose Forester was accepted and then went to the University of Hawaii because he won a fellowship at the East-West Center, based on his experience in the Peace Corps in Pakistan and his willingness to work in the wartime conditions of Viet Nam. Maybe working alone in forests helped.  He had convincingly demonstrated his commitment to working in the Third World through his master’s thesis work in tropical forests in Trinidad and his declared major in Tropical Forestry at the University of Florida. Despite the financial stipend that went with the fellowship to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, he and his wife could not have afforded to attend without the additional income that went along with the GI Bill.  That magnificent program permitted him to attend for four full years; an institutional gesture that once again proved that making a commitment in human beings who serve their country is not forgotten by the citizens of the great United States of America. 

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