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Feature   | Summer 2011

Passing the torch

Almost everyone has something from their past, some unfinished business, that weighs on their minds.

Sam Grober
Photo courtesy Samuel Grober family.

For Sam Grober, it was a tree, one nearly half a century back in his past; the only record of it was in his head. He had become a successful businessman, but at heart he was a scientist. The loss of that tree had nagged at him since the end of World War II.

Grober, working on a doctorate at the University of Maryland, received federal funding in the 1930s to study trees that could double as erosion control around farm fields and provide value as timber. The work led him to a type of poplar that had a unique, curly pattern to its grain, making it valuable for veneer.

Grober wrote a dissertation on the find, received his degree and then was drafted into service in the Pacific theatre of the war.

While in the U.S. Army, Grober's forestry knowledge was put to use. He developed a system to streamline logging and milling on an island in the South Pacific that created lumber needed in the war effort. He later worked for Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Allied occupation of Japan, where he reorganized the Japanese logging and lumber industry, transferring its control from the emperor to commercial enterprises.

Dream on Hold
When the war ended, Grober headed back to Maryland to pick up his work, only to find that the plot of test trees he had planted had been plowed under and his research materials lost in a fire. For the next several decades, that's where it stood.

Grober used his eye for spotting high-quality wood to land log-buying jobs that sent him around the world searching for mahogany, teak and other premium hardwoods. "In Ghana and the Gold Coast, he would go in and choose the trees, the natives would cut them down and they would be floated down rivers to sawmills," says David Grober, Sam's son. "He was quite good at it."

In the ensuing decades, Grober married, had two children, settled down in Evanston, Ill., and, by all accounts, lived a full and happy life. But there was always this unfinished business in Maryland.

poplar harvested
The cutting that Sam Grober planted was harvested in hopes of finding the prized veneer. Photo courtesy Samuel Grober family.

"He thought about that tree his whole life. He always talked about it," says M. Patricia Grober, Sam's widow. "It was on his mind for at least 50 years."

Where He Left Off
In the early 1980s, Grober found a way to resurrect his dream. He returned to Maryland and took a few cuttings from what he hoped was the offspring of one of his original trees home. Back in Evanston, he planted one in his front yard and hoped he'd found the right tree.

"It became a pet project of his," David Grober says. "He wanted to prove that he was right about it. He was very much into promoting the health of the forest industry, and he always thought this would be a great crop with a great value to the industry."


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