The only person surprised – stunned really – that Max McCormack of Unity received this year’s prestigious Austin H. Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award was McCormack himself.
“When Sherry Huber called me about this I was, in fact, speechless,” he told a crowd of friends and colleagues at the Blaine House. “I think she had to ask if I was still on the line. And it has given me cause to reflect more than any other event in my career on how it happened and where I’ve been.”
Huber, executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation, couldn’t help smiling when she described his reaction to the news at the award ceremony on Sept. 8.
“Max was – I won’t say horrified – I think he was very pleasantly surprised and had no idea that this honor would come his way,” she said. “But he certainly deserves it.”
The Austin H. Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award was created by the Maine TREE Foundation and is the only award in Maine that recognizes stewardship of the working forest. When Wilkins received the first award in 2004, McCormack was on the committee that chose him.
“So this has come full circle and it’s pretty nice,” Huber said.
McCormack, who graduated from the University of Maine in 1956, is celebrating 60 years as a forester. He earned both his master’s in silviculture (1959) and his doctorate (1963) from Duke University. After teaching silviculture at Southern Illinois University and the University of Vermont, he returned to UMaine in 1976 as research professor and leader of the Cooperative Forest Research Unit.
He’s well known for his innovative research, well-crafted studies and adherence to objective analysis and is widely credited with helping lead the recovery of the Maine spruce-fir forests after the last spruce budworm infestation in the 1970s to the mid 1980s.
McCormack also touched the lives of countless UMaine students, including Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.
“Max has always been an important mentor to me,” Strauch said. “Without his support I would not have been able to redeem my rambunctious early college record by becoming one of his respected graduate students, focused on learning from his skills as a silviculurist.”
McCormack retired from UMaine in 1997 and was named professor emeritus in 1998, but he hasn’t stopped trying to improve Maine’s forests. He serves on the state’s panel of experts for Outcome Based Forestry and on the Forester Licensing Board. He works with the Society of American Foresters and the University of Maine Cooperative Forestry Research Unit. He’s also a member of many other organizations, including MFPC and SWOAM, where he writes a regular newsletter column on Practical Siliviculture. In October, he’s going on an American Forestry Foundation tour to Germany, where he’s also been a guest professor at the universities of Goettingen and Freiburg.
“I don’t know how I can say the word retirement and your name in the same vein,” Maine State Forester Doug Denico joked at the award ceremony, “because if anybody can tell me when you stopped working and went into retirement it’s a miracle because no one could recognize it. You’ve kept on working tirelessly and you’ve given of yourself unbelievably.”
Denico spoke about McCormack’s many publications and the awards he’s received “from everybody who really matters.” He had special praise for McCormack’s efforts – “brilliant in concept and execution”– to help Maine’s forest products industry learn to use herbicides safely and effectively.
“You got us up to speed so we could look the public in the eye and say, ‘We know how to do this safely,’” Denico said. “All the things you did made herbiciding a viable tool, but without you I don’t know how we would have squeaked through. So thank you for that big step up that we got.”
Denico told McCormack that he needs no monument or granite statue to be remembered because “you have something much better than that. It’s a living monument that you’ve got. If you know anything about forestry and you fly from Calais to the Quebec border or you go from Bingham to the Big 20 and you look down, you’re going to see Max McCormack – the influence that you’ve had on the industry – right below you, everywhere you go. I think that’s wonderful to have that kind of a living memorial for yourself. It’s there and it will continue to be there.”
As Gov. Paul LePage presented the Austin Wilkins Award to McCormack, he said, “Congratulations to you for the fine work you’ve done, not only in the research, but for the people of the State of Maine, for the landowners and for the future of the industry in the State of Maine.”
McCormack’s acceptance speech was short, clearly heartfelt and passed on the credit for his career to the “people who had an influence and who kicked me in the butt and sent me down a line in the right direction. Any achievements that I’ve accomplished that put me up here this morning are just purely my efforts to carry out what was delivered along the way by faculty, by friends. Many of you are here in this room.”
He added that when he first arrived in Maine by train, “I didn’t realize it at that moment, but I stepped on a magic carpet that’s carried me right up to the doorstop this morning. And it’s been a tremendous ride.”
McCormack ended with a prayer that he translated from German in the 1970s, calling it “an appeal from the forest to all of us – mankind. And it’s stuck with me ever since I read it for the first time and understood it. And it goes like this.”
I am the warmth of your home on cold winter nights,
The protective shade in the burning summer sun,
I provide habitat for wild creatures and protection for watersheds.
I am the roof frame of your house and the door to your home,
Wood for tool handles and shipbuilding.
The table you dine on… and the bed you sleep in.
I am the wood of your cradle and of your casket.
I am the bread of goodness, the flower of beauty.
Hear my prayer… use me wisely.