First Female Forester in the East

I met Stephanie about five years ago through her daughter.  She is the original inspiration for my Leading Ladies blog series. I had known her for years when I found out that she was the first woman to graduate in her college program. I realized then that so many pioneering women are hiding in plain sight, and I wanted to learn about their experiences. It was not  until I asked to interview her that I found out she was also the first female forester in the eastern region.

Erstwhile Luddite: How did your family influence your decision to go into forestry?
Stephanie LaBumbard: I liked the outdoors and my step-dad took up the idea in a big way.  He liked to have things to brag about, and he pushed the forester thing.  He took me to college to see the campuses. I applied to the College of Forestry in Syracuse and the Agriculture program at Cornell.  I got in both places, but Cornell said they didn’t have room for me to live.  My algebra teacher was an alumna of Cornell and she was so mad that she called them and they found a place for me within two weeks.  But I decided to go to Syracuse anyway and I don’t think she ever quite forgave me for it.

Careers were expected for us in our family.  My sister and I knew from the day we were born that we were going to college. My mother wasn’t college educated.  My father had to drop out of college his senior year because of finances.

My mother’s mother was pregnant with two young children when her husband died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She managed to get by, which took a lot of strength.  She went to work in an orphanage, which was where my mother was raised.  My grandmother wasn’t an attentive mother, and was not able to give her children a very good childhood, but in those days there was no safety net, so the fact that she could keep the family off the street was saying something.  So I come from a line of some strong women.

My mother was someone that shouldn’t have had children; she should have had a career.  She was so smart and loved numbers and she wasn’t very maternal.  She grew up in an orphanage and didn’t have an easy childhood.  Then she found out her husband (my father) was having an affair in the last year of his life.  Then he died suddenly when I was seven and my sister was four.  She was disappointed in life.  She would have been much happier with a career than with children.

But she was proud of us.  Especially of my sister.  I always thought she was prouder of Marilyn than of me because Marilyn has a very good job that pays a lot of money and she doesn’t have children.  When I was pregnant for the third time, with twins, my mother told me, “What’s wrong with you people?  Don’t you know how to prevent that sort of thing?” But Marilyn says she always thought our mother was prouder of me than of her, so probably she was always more willing to talk about our positive qualities to someone else rather than to our face.

EL: Were there other women enrolled in the forestry program with you?
SL: During World War II, a couple women had graduated in either the pulp and paper program or the chemistry program I think, but I was the first in the forestry.  Behind me there were 3-4 other women and I think a couple of them graduated. Then after that more and more came.  It was like the dam broke.

EL: How did the teachers and students react to you?

SL: I had one professor who told me up front that women did not belong in forestry and that he was going to do everything in his power to see that I never made it to graduation.  The only two Ds I ever got were in his classes. At graduation he came up and said, “I see you graduated in spite of everything I did to stop you. Congratulations.”

At first, it was very difficult because the students would not accept me.  I joined a sorority at Syracuse University so I could socialize with other women.  They suggested I run for class treasurer because they thought I could get all the votes from Forestry.  I did win, but only because I got the votes of the women in my sorority.  All the guys at forestry voted for the guy I was running against.

So, freshman year was hard.  I made some friends at Forestry, but mostly felt estranged.  But the summer after my freshman year we spent 12 weeks at a summer camp on Cranberry Lake.  The only other woman was a cook—we became good friends.  The place was inaccessible except by boat.

Because I was with the guys all summer, I started to fit in better.  They started to invite me to do things my sophomore year.  They’d pick me up to go hunting.  We’d go drinking together.  I dated 3-4 of them on and off, but nothing serious.  Back then dating was different. It was common to date around.  You weren’t out having sex, you just did things together and maybe made out.

There were always a few that wouldn’t accept me, but the majority came to.  And most of the professors did go out of their way to help me.

I’ll never forget when I was in Zoology.  It was me and about 100 guys. The topic was the sex life of the whitetail deer. Back then you didn’t talk about your period or anything.  The instructor was talking about estrus and everything, and I was so embarrassed I wanted to die.  I could hear the guys giggling all around me.

But freshman year, people didn’t want me there.  Some people took to calling me “bitch” and “whore.”  It was, “Pick that up, bitch”, or “do this, whore.”  By sophomore year, everyone called me either Huey (my last name was Hewitt) or Stevie (short for Stephanie).

I haven’t seen most of the guys since I graduated.  I’ve never been back to the reunions.  Most of the guys I knew best don’t go.  But I stay in touch with letters or email.  Sometimes some guy gets in touch with me to say hello and I don’t know who he is.  They all remember me because I was the only woman, but I can’t remember every one of them.

EL: How long were you a forester?
SL: After I graduated, I went right to grad school at Syracuse.  But my advisor left the next year, so I spent a year in Madison.  That was a wonderful year, the best of my life.  Then I came back and finished my Masters.  I started in the Forest Service in 1966.  They stationed me at Eagle River.  The Ranger I worked under was the male chauvinist of the world.  He made my work life very difficult.  At my six month review, he even gave me an unfavorable rating, which meant I would be fired.  But that was overturned by his higher-up.  I may not have been the best forester in the world, but I certainly wasn’t the worst and didn’t deserve that rating.

It’s funny, because I worked with these old loggers who lived in the north woods of Wisconsin.  You would think they would be the ones to give me the worst time.  But they were kind, helpful, never criticized me.  And the other techs were good to me and so was the assistant ranger.  We all got along very well.  Never any sexual overtones, and it was as good a workplace as you could ever want except for the ranger.

The policy at that time was that every day in the winter we would go out on snowshoes and mark trees.  We’d stop for lunch and build a fire to eat and get warm, then work the afternoon and come back. But if the temperature fell below -20, we didn’t have to go out.  Well, one day the temperature was very cold.  Maybe it wasn’t -20, but it was certainly at least -15, and the conditions were extremely bad.   When we were all in the car on the way back, one of my co-workers had a heart attack, and he died before we could get him to the hospital.  I was driving and another co-worker—his brother-in-law—was giving him CPR while he died.

As a result of this year, I came to dislike the job.  Maybe if I’d had a better mentor things would have been different, or maybe it would have just taken me longer to see that I didn’t really want to be a forester.  But one good thing was that while I was there, I met my future husband.  We were at a training and he impressed me because I noticed he was the only one drinking milk.  Everyone else was drinking coffee.  Later I found out it was because he had really bad ulcers!  But at the time, I was impressed.

When we got married, he was transferred to Milwaukee and they opened up a position for me in the information and education department.  I flew all over the eastern region to take photos and interview people in our jobs corp.  We were both flying a lot back then.  On Monday we would go to the airport together, and he would get on one plane while I got on another.  On Friday, we’d each get off our own planes and have the weekend together.  That’s how it was sometimes.  Then I got pregnant.  And when I was pregnant, I was very sick.  So I just quit.

Altogether it was about 1.5 years that I worked for the forest service. Many people saw my employment as an experiment, and I think many of them saw it as a failed experiment because I didn’t stay.  But a lot of women came after me, and maybe I helped smooth the road for them.

When I started with the Forest Service, there was a lot of fanfare because of me being the first woman.  The Milwaukee Journal came out and did a huge article with pictures and an interview.  Local papers wrote about it. I’ll never forget one day I was out working alone.  I had stopped for lunch and was sitting at a lake.  A couple came by with a golden retriever.  The man was a dentist and he had given his dog a gold crown—you could see it there in the dog’s mouth!  Anyway, they saw me and said, “Are you the lady forester?”
So we talked for a bit, and when I got married they sent us a card with a picture of the dog on it.

EL: Do you think women foresters still face some of the same challenges?
SL: I think they probably do, but overall it’s much better now.  Horace, my husband, stayed in the Forest Service and was put in charge of timber and wildlife for his forest.  He always did a lot to advance women.  He was a real advocate and he pushed and pushed to have this one woman promoted to district ranger.  When Horace died, she sent me a note to say how much he had done for women.

EL: As you look at your life, is this one of the big things you are very proud of?
SL: Yes.  I am proud of it.  And I enjoyed so much of it.  One thing about me is that I enjoy being around men. I don’t mean that as a sexual thing, I just like them.

I loved college after freshman year.  I had experiences a lot of people never had.  For example, I was at the Boundary Waters when Lady Bird Johnson dedicated it.  I was in charge of a whole planting at Eagle River, Wis.—I’d like to go back and check on it someday. I made lasting friends.  It was hard at first in school, but I don’t like to give up.  I had made up my mind to do it.  And even my freshman year, I did have a good time with the sorority.

It was hard being in the limelight, but I didn’t hate the limelight or I would have avoided it.  I’ve liked to be the focus of things.  Even now at church, I love to be a liturgist.  Other people say “Oh I could never get up in front of everyone.” But I like to be the center of attention.

I look back and I enjoyed it.

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4 Responses to “First Female Forester in the East”

  1. Judy Wolf Says:

    Ha ha! That is my mom! I bet everyone wishes they could be so proud.

    We love you.

    Judy

  2. jessica Says:

    excellent interview, mom.

  3. Cindy Tobias Says:

    Jessica,
    Now I know where you get your strength!!! Nice interview G., I love your blog!

    Cindy

  4. Cara Graninger Says:

    Jessica,

    Your mom and my dad are the same age. And I had no idea she grew up in New York and went to school in Syracuse, where I was for 7th grade. AND I totally agree with Cindy that you inherited her strength, your own version, equally strong!

    G.

    Glad I finally read some of your excellent writing. Keep it up!

    Cara

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