by Karl Wirsing/SEFS
If you’ve never heard the expression that 90 is the new 40, then you’ve never met Greg Lambert.
Lambert, who celebrated his 90th birthday last May, spent 26 years as a pilot with the U.S. Navy—eight on active duty, and 18 as a reserve—and raised 12 children through two marriages. He worked with the Simpson Timber Company for 32 years until he retired in 1987 at the age of 62, at which point he went on to start his own business and then build houses with Habitat for Humanity for several years. He still downhill skis twice a week during the winter, takes long boating excursions in the summer (indeed just returned from a 10-day trip), and flies a Cessna 172 a couple times a month as part of a local flying club. “I don’t think life is based on a chronological age,” he says. “It’s a psychological age.”
Greg Lambert, who lives in Seattle with his wife Mary Kay, on a visit to Anderson Hall this past spring.
So when Lambert looks back on his expansive life and multiple careers, he says there’s little he would change—except for one tiny, lingering regret: He wishes he would have finished his master’s in forest management from the College of Forestry back in 1951.
Maybe “regret” isn’t the right word, though, because he came within weeks of completing the program and went on to enjoy a long, fulfilling career in the timber industry. And with or without the degree, Lambert thoroughly earned his place in our history and family at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and we were thrilled to reconnect with him after nearly 65 years.
From Flyboy to Forester
Lambert was born in Seattle in 1925, and he enlisted in the Navy during World War II to be a pilot. He spent most of the war in training, though, and didn’t get a chance to fly in combat before the war ended. “I didn’t get my wings until 1946,” he says, “and when I got to Tokyo, they were having guided tours. I missed the whole thing.”
A few years later, around 1949, the Navy starting drawing down its tactical squadrons, so they didn’t need as many fighter aircraft and pilots anymore. Lambert thought about transferring from the reserves to the regular Navy, but he decided instead to weigh some other career options—including going back to school. He initially considered pre-engineering at Whitman, but after sending away for a University of Washington course catalog, he saw an area of study that really caught his attention. “I started going down all the courses, and I came to forestry,” he says. “That sounds like a good, clean life, so let’s do that.”
One of Lambert’s daughters, Denise, says he used to bring all of his kids into the woods to teach them about trees and plants, and instill in them a love for the natural world. “I’m really flattered she remembers that,” says Lambert. “We did a lot of camping when they were growing up, and my wife would get a little upset with me for getting into my lecture mode.”
Lambert enrolled as a student at the College of Forestry in January 1950. But then the Korean War started that summer, and Lambert, who was already serving in the Naval Air Station reserve unit in Washington, felt a strong pull to get involved. “I was anxious to get back in,” he says. “I made my application to go back on active duty, and they put me in ready reserve.”
His opening came up that fall, but by then Lambert and his wife were settling into student life and their home in Union Bay Village, a community for veterans that was located near the current Center for Urban Horticulture. “It was a really nice deal,” he says. “Rent was cheap, and there was a certain amount of camaraderie. We all had children, so there was a lot of dignity to being a poor student.”
Lambert decided to stay in the reserve unit in Washington and continue with the forestry program. He got to participate in Garb Day, learn timber cruising and surveying down at Park Forest, and he took field trips to visit mills out on the Olympic Peninsula. “[The program] was a nice marriage between time in the classroom and on the job,” he says.
As it happened, life as a student also synced nicely with the duties of a reserve pilot. When aircraft needed an overhaul, they had to be flown down to the base in Jacksonville, Fla. “The guys with real jobs couldn’t get off,” says Lambert. “But students were ideally suited to get off Friday to Tuesday.”
An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
He had been able to resist that first temptation to leave school. A second challenge came about a year and a half into his program when the California Redwood Association (CRA) offered him a job as a forest products research engineer in Eureka, Calif. Lambert was a couple months away from wrapping up his thesis, but he had three children and didn’t want to pass up a solid career opportunity in forestry.
“I could have taken another six weeks to two months to finish my thesis, but they were pounding on my door that they needed me, and I rationalized that I’d gotten all of the value out of school,” he says.
Lambert and his wife Mary Kay on his 90th birthday.
So Lambert accepted the job offer and moved down to California with his wife. “At the time, the CRA had 14 member mills, and my job was to work with the mills on sawmill studies and kiln-drying improvement,” he says. “I worked with a lot of throwbacks to the rough-and-ready types, and they looked with disfavor on a young college student, but there were some younger people in the mix who began to appreciate the value of these studies—improving yield, accuracy of cut, that kind of stuff. That was a lot of fun. It was a very interesting job.”
One of the member mills he worked with was Simpson Timber Company in Arcata, Calif., which eventually lured Lambert away from CRA. “And that was that,” he says.
He stuck with Simpson for the next 32 years, moving to several states to expand the distribution base for Simpson timber, and eventually getting promoted to sales manager—and then marketing manager—for the Redwood Division. Lambert says he always enjoyed the work, but he especially appreciated the company culture at Simpson Timber, a fifth-generation, family-owned company that was founded in Shelton, Wash., in 1890. “One of the things I really liked about Simpson was the ethics of the company,” he says. “There was quite a dedication to being good stewards of the land.”
Lambert hasn’t lost any of his zeal for the outdoors, and he isn’t about to slow down—especially on the slopes. “You can ski from age 4 to 94,” he says. “I [turned] 90 the first of May, and it still feels good me.”
That wasn’t the case, Lambert says, when Sol Simpson founded the company, and nearly everyone believed the Pacific Northwest had an inexhaustible supply of timber. But over time, the company began hanging onto more of its harvested land, and developing a bigger, more sustainable base of forest lands to manage. “That impressed me, the commitment to being good stewards, and also the lack of pressure at the business end to make the bottom line look good,” he says. “The emphasis was on the long-term—but you had to make your case, though, about the validity of the long-term investment.”
Onward and Upward
Now, after more than three decades with Simpson, and after several other career and volunteer endeavors, Lambert has finally settled into retired life. But that doesn’t mean you’ll notice any change in his pace. He sailed through his milestone 90th birthday, and he’s already retrained his sights on 95—yet only on the condition he can keep skiing and flying.
So given how everything turned out, from the timing of his jobs and moves, to how he’s maintained such an active lifestyle, to how he met his wife Mary Kay, Lambert hasn’t dwelled needlessly on his missing master’s. It would have meant a great deal to him to earn the degree, no question, but there was nothing he did afterward that he’d be willing to trade for it. “If I had to do it all over again,” he says, “it’d do it the same way.”
That sounds like the well-earned perspective of someone who has a lot of great years to lean on, and more adventures still to come!
Photo of Greg Lambert at Anderson Hall © Karl Wirsing/SEFS; all other photos © Greg Lambert and Julie Seaborn.
Lambert and his family—all kids except for one son, in fact—at his 90th birthday celebration.