Milt Herbert: An Exceptional Life Well Lived

Milt Herbert: An Exceptional Life Well Lived

The forestry world lost another giant this month. Lumberman, Milt Herbert, who one admirer once called "our industry's prince," died December 10 in Roseburg, Oregon. He was 86 and had been in declining health for several years.

Milt and I were friends for 42 years. I chronicled his inspiring life story in "Can't Never Could Do Anything," a book I wrote several years ago at his family's request..

Last February, the Douglas County Museum honored Milt with its annual Legacy Award. Below are the remarks I made at the ceremony.

If you would like to make a $100 tax deductible contribution to the Evergreen Foundation in Milt's memory, I would be pleased to send you an autographed copy of his biography.

Jim Petersen, Founder and President The Evergreen Foundation, publishers of Evergreen Magazine


This afternoon, we honor the exceptional life of Milt Herbert and, by inference that of Arlene, his wife and soul mate who once said of him, “I never doubted that he would be a great success. He is the smartest man I have ever known.”

All of you – his best friends – know that this uncommon man sees nothing uncommon about his life or his myriad contributions to those of you who call Douglas County home. It is thus your obligation to join me this afternoon in honoring Milt by sharing with us your favorite stories about him.

It is hard to know where to begin – but it is well worth noting that when Milt and Arlene arrived in Canyonville in May of 1948, they lived in one half of an Army surplus field tent. No one would rent to a young couple with a small baby.

And because they had no money, they could not afford to buy a refrigerator, so Milt dug a pit under a shade tree behind the tent and stuck a wash tub in its bottom. He filled the tub with his daughter’s baby formula and some cans of Spam and tuna, good luck gifts from Milt’s parents. They would surely need all of the luck they could find in the years to come.

Also worth noting is the fact that Milt and Arlene were on their way from Eugene to northern California when they stopped in Canyonville. They planned to build a saw mill there because timber was cheaper than it was around Eugene. How fortunate we are that they decided to build their mill on Day’s Creek.

Before Arlene and Bille joined Milt in their tent beside the Day’s Creek swamp that would become the Herbert Lumber Company’s first log pond, Milt slept in the back seat of his car. There were no motels along old Highway 99 in south Douglas County, and as we already know, he had no money for such luxuries, so he slept in his car beside his work in progress.

When I started work on Milt’s biography, Arlene reminded me that she brought more money into their marriage than he - $300 she had saved from her beautician’s job in Eugene. It can thus be truthfully said that Arlene Herbert bankrolled the Herbert Lumber Company, as well as their initial investment in the South Umpqua State Bank which is today the Umpqua Holding Corporation, by far the largest bank in Oregon, with nearly 150 branches in Oregon, California and Nevada. Even Warren Buffet, the world’s wealthiest investor, cannot match Arlene’s dazzling return on capital.

In the foreword to “Can’t Never Could Do Anything,” I wrote that Milt and I first met on a beastly hot July morning in 1987. This isn’t true. I had forgotten that our first meeting occurred in March of 1972, within days of my going to work for D.R. Johnson, an unimaginably stubborn man who would become one of my best friends. Back then, D.R., Milt and Bud Johnson had coffee together most mornings at the Tri-City Nickel Bowl. I was privileged to join them now and then. As you might imagine, they were quite a trio. I still marvel at the fact that it is not possible to tell where their adjoining log yards begin and end. Such was the depth of their friendship and their unassailable trust for one another.

When Milt and I got back together in 1987, it was for the purpose of interviewing him for Forest Life, a monthly forestry magazine that I published for Douglas Timber Operators. What I noticed about Milt that I had not noticed in 1972, was that he was the spitting image of my father – another quiet man who, despite being very comfortable in his own skin, was very uncomfortable talking about himself.

When I picture Milt in my mind’s eye, I see a man who was never afraid to get his hands dirty and who never went anywhere without his work gloves. Last week, I asked Lynn to bring a pair of his Dad’s gloves this afternoon. I hope he has them because if there is any stage prop that symbolizes this humble and generous man’s life, it is his well-worn gloves. If they were not at the ready in his back pocket, they were on the seat beside him in his pickup.

Wyatt Hendrick, who was Milt’s logging superintendent for 33 years, once told me that he had never heard Milt ask an employee to do something he would not do himself. So it was that on many occasions, Milt and Arleen brought lunch to logging crews broke down and working overtime in the woods. I regret to say that I did not ask Arlene if she made these lunches, but it would not surprise me. It was Lynn who reminded me of her inestimable role in Milt’s success:

“She kept the books,” he wrote me in a recent email, “raised the family, sewed our clothes, fed and doctored everyone as needed and shuttled us to school events. She was the captain of our internal support system.”

Lynn left it to me to explain to his father that we were writing his life’s story. I guess he figured I’d have a better shot at it than he, which was probably true because after I breezed through my explanation of what Lynn and I were planning, he said he could not imagine why on earth anyone would want to read anything about his life – much less a book! It turns out that most everyone in Douglas County admires this man. In fact, everyone I interviewed said he was their best friend. Milt’s best friend is Arlene.

I do not know if Milt has read his biography, but I can tell you that writing it was not easy, and I consider myself to be a fairly respectable writer. But how to you write a book about a man who apparently never wrote letters, shuns publicity, never gave a speech, doesn’t like to talk about himself, doesn’t like to have his picture taken and, in fifty-some years, never saw the need to write a business plan?

The late Chuck Pyron ran up against the same problem. Pyron, who was a University of Oregon business school professor and employee relations consultant, wrote a text book about Milt’s management style that he titled [follow me here] “The Mellow Maverick: An Examination of Transformational and Entrepreneurial Leadership as Reflected in the Life and Work of Milton Herbert.” Milt hired Pyron in 1967 to help him with employee supervisory training at the mill. Over dinner in Eugene in 2005, Dr. Pyron told me that he had long believed that he learned more about management from Milt that Milt ever learned from him. I have no doubt.

And yet Milt had no management training. Nor did he know the first thing about sawmills when he got started on Winberry Creek, east of Eugene, in May of 1947. His first mill was a brush mill that he towed behind his pickup. He bought it on contract from Henry Shannon, a friend of his father’s. Shannon spent a half-day in the woods with Milt - then left him to figure out how to make a go of it. Milt and his young partner logged with horses and misery whips, aptly named cross-cut saws used to fell timber in the days before chain saws were common.

Competition was fierce in the years following World War II. There were thousands of brush mills in the woods in western Oregon in 1947 – many of them operated by fly-by-night outfits called “gyppos.” Although being a “gyppo” in the woods today is a badge of honor, it was anything but a compliment in 1947. In fact, it was the distrust banks that had for “gyppos” that led Milt to put his Day’s Creek mill on a permanent concrete foundation – symbolism at its best.

Bank distrust for gyppos also led him to join in the 1953 founding of the South Umpqua State Bank at Canyonville. Milt wanted his employees to be able to cash their payroll checks somewhere besides local taverns. At the time, no bank in Roseburg would cash a payroll check from a South Douglas County mill.

Over the years, Milt would teach many of his employees – Rich Stratton included – how to save money. Many would express astonishment at the amount of money that was in their retirement accounts when they retired. To a man, they loved him for his kindness and generosity – and for the wisdom that he so willingly shared with them. His entire employees relations handbook – had there ever been one – could have been boiled down to one sentence. “Give a man a sharp tool and get out of his way.”

Early on, Milt separated himself from his peers. They chased sawing speed and over-run – for decades the Holy Grails in sawmilling. But Milt chose to saw his logs more slowly because he believed that sawing slowly would yield more high quality lumber from the big logs he was sawing. And it surely did, but I am fascinated by the fact that he approached people the same way so as to capture all of the value there was. I dare say he has made everyone whose path he crossed a better person. I am testament to his remarkable ability to lift people up – to help make them better than they would otherwise be.

Early on in our many interviews, I asked Milt why he decided to get into the sawmilling game. He looked at me with some puzzlement, probably pondering the silliness of my question, and then he gave voice to his puzzlement. “I was surrounded by trees,” he replied. “How could I possibly fail?”

Some 60 years hence, Douglas County’s lumber industry is still surrounded by trees though, sadly, they now stand beyond reach. The country’s political value and its motives have changed in ways that no one entering the industry in 1947 could have ever predicted. I have written about this sorry mess more times than I can count, and I don’t want the political betrayal we are witnessing to dominate Milt’s day, but I will share something Lynn said to me when he and I first discussed the book. He said, “Did you know that more timber dies and falls over on the Tiller Ranger District every year than we use at our mill in a year?” The operative phrase here is “falls over,” as in “not even standing.” I had to admit that I did not know, but how sad it is that our country has become so wealthy that we think nothing of wasting not just valuable trees but the very opportunity that was embodied in the lives of countless thousands of men and women who helped rebuild our country following the Great Depression and World War II.

I wish I had an answer for you this afternoon, but I do not. But I can tell you that your friend Milt Herbert quietly moved mountains to help this county and its communities become the professed “Timber Capital of the World” following the Second World War. Before I wrote a single word in his biography I asked his generally outspoken peers to describe him to me. I will close with them:

After pausing for a moment, Bud Johnson said that in nearly 50 years, he could not recall a single time when Milt promoted himself.

Without hesitation, D.R. Johnson said, “There is no one else like him in our industry.” If you knew D.R. and I knew him, you know that what he is saying here is that Milt possesses Heaven-sent qualities that set him apart from his peers.

A third Johnson – Don Johnson, who worked for Rough and Ready Lumber at Cave Junction – put this in perspective in a five-word response to me question. He said, “Milt is our industry’s prince.”

All true, but here is the description I like best. It comes from Wally Dancer, who worked for Milt for 30 years. He said, “Milt is the kind of person that church people should be.”

In a similar vein, Jerry McKinney, who has been Milt’s barber since 1956, said, “We are from the old school. Our word is still our bond.”

Now please, it is your turn to stand and share with us your stories about Milt Herbert, whose life can be summed up in dinnertime words of wisdom he shared with Lynn and Bille whenever they faced growing up mountains that seemed too high to climb.

“Can’t,” he would gently remind them, “never could do anything.”

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