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One-time top AK forester honored

Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

From his home among the trees of Douglas Island on a cool rainy Tuesday morning, John Sandor said there was no place he would rather be.

"Juneau is as nice as it gets," said the retired regional forester, top administrator for the U.S. Forest Service in the state of Alaska, and a member of Gov. Walter Hickel's cabinet.

Sandor is looking forward to his 79th birthday in December, and is a valuable member of the Rotary Club of Juneau, club President Cliff Stone told him at Tuesday's lunchtime meeting. Stone presented Sandor with a U.S. Forest Service medallion bearing his name and a "thank you" from the Juneau Rotary.

Dennis DeWitt, special assistant to Gov. Frank Murkowski, presented Sandor with a new brief case holding copies of proclamations the governor signed earlier this year marking the 100th anniversaries of the both the U.S. Forest Service and Rotary International.

"If you hang around for another 21 years, by God, you're going to get your 100 anniversary proclamation," DeWitt said.

"I am speechless," Sandor said after other Rotarians took turns presenting him with gifts.

"He's done an awful lot for Juneau," said Sandor's wife, Lee, earlier at his home. They met in Juneau in 1954, Sandor recalled, and next May 18 will be their 50th anniversary. They raised two daughters and now have two grandsons.

It wasn't just his work with the U.S. Forest Service, his wife said. He has been involved with community service projects through the Masons and Rotary.

Tuesday morning, Sandor was typing draft minutes on a computer for the parish relations committee of Douglas Community United Methodist Church, which he chairs. "Fifty years ago when I started out, people dictated things. Now you do things yourself."

Retirement means different things to different people, Sandor said. He considers it "payback time."

Rotary, he said, "with its dedication to service above self, certainly tries to make the world a better place to live."

Sandor's ideal world has plenty of trees. He collects old photographs and illustrations as a hobby and has pictures of Douglas Island from the turn of the last century, when much of the area was clear-cut. "It comes back," he said. "It's awesome how the branches spread out and fill the empty spaces. Trees are really remarkable."

He still takes the courses he needs to maintain his status as a certified forester, although he retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1984. He also kept his certification while heading the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation from 1990 to 1994.

Sandor recently renewed his certification for another three years. "I'm good until 2009. I intend to go to my grave as a certified forester."

"Anyone who works in conservation activities has a tremendous responsibility to perpetuate one of the most important resources in the country," Sandor said.

"Living and recreating in a forest area, I grew up to accept that as an ideal way of life."

He grew up near Buckley, Wash., in the foothills of the Cascades, on the edge of the Snoqualmie National Forest. As young as 15, he worked on trails and planted trees.

Rangers used to joke about how lucky they were to get paid to work in forests, he said. "After work we could hunt and fish and trap."

When he dropped out of high school in 1945, he didn't do it to go off and live in the woods. There was a war going on, he explained. He had brothers serving and wanted to do his part. But before he could enlist in the Navy, the Army drafted him.

As a medic, the Army sent him to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. A doctor he described as being something like Hawkeye from television's "MASH" told him he was "an idiot" for dropping out of high school and helped him get his GED high school equivalency certificate and later suggested he should go into medicine.

Sandor agreed that medicine pays better. "But I said, I really do want to go into forestry." That's what he studied at Washington State College, after getting out of the Army in 1946. He later got a master's degree from Harvard.

He joined the forest service after graduating and first spent time in Juneau and Southeast Alaska in 1953. Except for two years in Ketchikan and a year at Harvard, he was in Juneau until 1962. After administration jobs in such places as Atlanta and Milwaukee, he returned as regional forester in 1976 and has been part of the community since.

"Juneau is a wonderful community," he said. "No matter where you live, all you have to do is look around to see trees."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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