During his nearly two decades as a forester, there were days when John Gross would gladly have traded jobs with his wife, a teacher.
Yet, after he realized his dream and started teaching in 1997, he would occasionally find himself glancing out the classroom window during a math or state history lesson, longing to be tromping through the woods again.
When Gross (’77 Forest Mgt., Bus.) gave up his first professional passion, forestry, to indulge a long-growing love of teaching, he made the type of trade-off many people face during their careers. But it’s a sacrifice he no longer shoulders. Three years ago, he started managing the Wake Robin Learning Center, the Longview School District’s outdoor school on 82 wooded acres near the city. Based in a converted home on the property, Gross teaches forestry classes, organizes educational retreats for children and adults, and tends to the land with student helpers.
“I get to practice forestry, and I get to teach,” he said last spring after giving a lesson to a high school vocational forestry class. “I don’t know how it gets much better than that.”
Actually, it did get a little better this year, when the Washington State Society of American Foresters (SAF) named Gross its Forester of the Year for contributions to his profession and the public. Gross has been a member of the SAF throughout his career.
“There’s not many people who put in the time and the effort that John does year ’round,” says David Bergvall (’00 Forest Mgt.), who is a state forester and one of the SAF members who nominated Gross for the award. “When you start to look at the cumulative impacts of the kids he [influences] . . . it’s pretty amazing.”
Gross knew he wanted to be a forester while still a student at Kelso High School, where he joined Future Farmers of America (FFA) and where his father, Larry Gross (’52 Ag. Ed.), taught vocational agriculture.
After college, he landed a job with International Paper in Longview, next door to Kelso. Much of his work focused on replanting the company’s harvested timberlands on both sides of the lower Columbia River.
“I enjoyed the farming part of it. I liked growing trees,” he said. “I guess I would’ve made a good farmer at some point in time.”
While growing trees, Gross also nurtured a love of teaching as a volunteer, often at outdoor school with wife Trudi Gross (’78 Home Ec.), who now teaches music in the Kelso School District. He also mentored Longview fifth-graders on tree-planting trips, which evolved into the Forestry Day program he hosts for the district at Wake Robin.
In 1996, International Paper sold its West Coast timberlands. Gross lost his job but found himself primed to switch careers. A severance package paid his way through a one-year master’s degree program at Vancouver’s City University, and a year after leaving the woods he was at the front of a Longview classroom.
Also in 1996, Joe Lammi, a retired forestry professor, and his wife, Eleanor, a counselor, signed a 20-year lease allowing the district to share their family retreat on the banks of Coal Creek, where salmon and trout live beneath a canopy of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and red alder trees.
Before becoming Wake Robin’s manager in 2003, Gross worked with students during summer vacations to cut trails, build bridges, and prepare the property for educational uses. He and son Ian, a current Washington State University student, transformed the home’s basement into a science classroom. Last year, he chartered an FFA chapter that focuses on forestry and natural resources, and he currently is developing a college-credit forestry course.
The Lammis have since died, but the district has options to extend its lease or buy the Wake Robin land. Other school districts send students into the outdoors to learn about the natural world, but few have such a treasure in their own backyards.
In John Gross, the district found the ideal caretaker, one who shared the Lammis’ vision that “young people need peaceful, quiet, attractive, accessible, nearby areas for recreation and education.”
You could not have asked for a better situation in putting Goss and Wake Robin together, says Ann Cavanaugh, the Longview district’s executive director of student learning. “He fits well because he walks in both worlds—the professional forester and the professionally trained educator.”