All Fred Burson cared about after graduating from Roseburg High School in 1966 was finding a job that would put money in his pocket.
He worked at the Douglas Inn Motel and then Roseburg Lumber before being hired on to pull green chain for Nordic Veneer. At the time, millworkers earned a respectable $3.50 to $5 an hour.
“Jobs were available, and Fred’s a good example of a high school kid who wanted to work,” said Nordic Veneer’s second-generation owner Art Adams. “Mills were the place to go because that was where they could do the best. There’s security, good earnings, and if you liked it, you would stay right where you were.”
Burson started at Nordic Veneer on May 1, 1968. Little did he know that he would spend the next 45 years with the company, let alone still be there when he reached retirement at the end of this month.
“I was just out of school, and I wanted money, and Art kind of grew on me,” Burson said. “And Art said, ‘I guess I could put up with you.’”
The 66-year-old’s career spans decades of highs when the industry boomed and lows when timber harvests dropped and many mills closed. Logging changed with the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990, adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 and ongoing litigation over interpretations of federal laws.
The downturn in the economy in the 1980s also rattled the mills. Still, Burson stuck with it, even when he didn’t receive a paycheck.
He recalled his years at the mill in an interview Friday at the timber company’s office off Highway 138 east of Roseburg. Adams, his son and co-owner J.R. Adams and plant superintendent Pat Bintliff joined Burson to reminisce.
Right away, all three noted that Burson never took a sick day. Ever. There was a time when he called in and told Bintliff he was too ill to make it. But before the shift started, Burson had shown up, albeit suffering from a fever, ready to work.
“That’s almost unheard of,” Art Adams said, adding, with a laugh, “This is something we don’t recommend. But he has had just an attitude, a will to want to work to stay busy and to be productive.”
Burson, who said his parents instilled a strong work ethic, said his doctor warned him about doing too much. But it doesn’t stop him. “I just keep on trucking,” he said.
As operations changed with the additions of machinery, so did Burson’s duties. Today, he is a log yard equipment operator. Everything he learned was from hands-on experience.
“He still runs from pieces of equipment to the next. There is no walking,” J.R. Adams said. “And we call him, Eagle-Eyed Fred because he has a knack for observing problems, safety concerns ... all aspects of the job.”
Burson doesn’t see the transition to automation as a threat but rather as becoming more efficient. Art Adams agreed. In the past, 20 truck loads of logs would be milled a day. It’s now 110 loads thanks to new technology, Adams said.
There were tough times, Burson said. Occasionally, logs weren’t trucked to the mill and paychecks stopped. Burson still worked.
“I envisioned the mill as being sick. You don’t leave your wife or kids when they are sick,” Burson said. “I was willing to work for nothing.”
Burson’s revelation caught Adams by surprise. He never knew Burson worked without pay.
“It makes me want to cry,” Adams said. “Fred has always been so good and so dependable, you almost take advantage of it. When we had the down times, he was always the positive.”
Aside from the 50-hour work weeks, Burson for several years was a single parent to daughters Donna (Keib) and Sheridan (Underwood). Burson shook his head when he recalled the many times he would have to leave the log yard to take a phone call in the office from the girls fighting over a blouse.
He later married Joyce and welcomed two stepdaughters. Once retired, Burson plans to help Joyce with the couple’s dog treat business, Puppy Love Treats.
Although it will be hard to not rise early for his shift at the yard, Burson said it’s time to call it a day.
“Sixty-six was always the number I said I would retire at,” he said. “It’s like a small fish in a stream. I got past the currents and the bears, and I am alive so it’s time to go.”
•You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.