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Forester weathers slew of storms, preserves campus beauty

They could see it coming from a hundred miles away.

Kirk Pelland in front of the Davie Poplar 3.
Kirk Pelland in front of the Davie Poplar 3.

Like a set of menacing headlights looming in the distance, Hurricane Fran barreled straight toward them from the North Carolina coast. What made it even worse was knowing they could do nothing to stop it. Or to get out of its way.

Throughout that day 11 years ago, all they could do was wait and worry and watch, but by early evening, Kirk Pelland and a dozen other men kept their chainsaws buzzing to cut away the debris that had already blanketed Pittsboro Street.

As the winds built in intensity, the campus filled with the sound of breaking limbs and cracking tree trunks. “One of the guys compared the noise to the sound of popcorn popping,” Pelland said. “It was everywhere.”

It was as close as most of them would ever get to going to war, Pelland said.

Shortly before midnight, the winds reached such a frenzied pitch that the crew was forced to retreat to the Grounds Department office off Mason Farm Road where they hunkered down until morning came and they could find out how badly they had been beaten.

Pelland saw the devastation at first light: 200-year-old oaks blown over at the roots, pines and Bradford pears split and splintered, mature hardwoods snapped off at mid-trunk. At the time, Pelland had served for five years as lead forester for the University in the Facilities Service Division and had nurtured the 729 sylvan acres of central campus since March 1982. He was proud of the fact that “The Campus as a Work of Art,” by T.A. Gaines, had named the Carolina campus as among the 50 most aesthetically pleasing in the country.

That work of art, two centuries in the making, lay in ruins. And what he felt, Pelland said, was grief. He and the rest of the grounds crew went back to work that morning and the mornings that followed. In 1999, three years after Hurricane Fran and two years after Pelland was named director of the Grounds Department, the crew’s efforts received national recognition when Carolina won one of 16 American Society of Landscape Architects Medallion Awards.

Pelland’s unswerving sense of dedication, demonstrated not only in the aftermath of Hurricane Fran but throughout his 25-year career at Carolina, earned him a 2007 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

A convert from Duke

Pelland, in both background and manner, is a blend of seeming contradictions. Hidden behind his bespeckled, mild-mannered veneer is an iron will. He may not bark orders like a Marine drill sergeant, but he can be nearly as disagreeable should a job not be done the way he expected. Disguised behind the hint of a Southern twang is a Yankee born in Akron, Ohio, who attended Catholic school through high school and earned good enough grades to win a scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the South.

Blame it on Pelland’s dad that the university turned out to be Duke. His father knew a lawyer who attended Duke’s law school, and he thought that law was a profession that might suit his studious son.

With his wiry build and neatly trimmed haircut, Pelland has a hint of Marine bearing as well. Blame that on his father, too — a former Marine who fought in the Pacific theater during World War II. His mother served as a Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

The Pellands had four children, three boys and a girl, and the senior Pelland spent what free time he had coaching his sons in about every sport there was to be played from basketball to football, baseball to bowling. In everything they did, Pelland said, his father instilled in his children “an internal discipline and drive and a sense of purpose.”

Once at Duke, however, Pelland found himself drawn away from the study of law that his father had envisioned for him to a subject he discovered he loved even more: the laws of nature. (It was also while in the environmental management program that he was drawn to a fellow student named Alice, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of their two children. Alice is now a Carolina employee, too, working in student affairs at the School of Medicine.)

In 1972, he graduated from Duke with a degree in political science and history. But instead of going to law school, he pursued a master’s degree in forestry at Duke, which he earned in 1977.

For the next five years, Pelland worked as a forester for a consulting firm that managed private forestland before he was hired as the University forester in 1982. Over the years, Pelland has grown to possess as much Carolina pride as the most fervent of alumni, but once basketball season rolls around, his allegiance turns dark blue.

“Roy Williams is a wonderful human being, but don’t ask me to root for his basketball team,” Pelland said. “That’s asking too much.”

Weathering more storms

Six years after Hurricane Fran came the ice storm of 2002, which loaded the trees with so much ice that they bent low to the ground like stoop-shouldered old men. The weight of the ice grew heavy enough to snap in two the heaviest branches at the center of the trees.

“At one point of the ice storm, you could just come out here and cry at the way the trees were leaning down and broken,” he said. “The Overcup oaks in the Pit I wouldn’t have given you five cents for because of the way they were broken from the top.”

Just as nature has a knack for destroying things, it also has the capacity of repairing itself with a little nudge here and there from Pelland’s ground crew. Over the next five years, the Overcup oaks recovered in a way that Pelland said he would not have thought possible.

When Pelland took the job as director of the Grounds Department a year after Hurricane Fran, a different kind of storm was already brewing within his department. African-American members of the crew filed a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination.

Robert Cannon, the longtime Equal Opportunity officer for the University, collected all the information about hiring and promotion and found no pattern of discrimination, Pelland said. What Cannon did find, however, was that certain practices within the department could be improved, starting with communication.

“I am really grateful to Bob for leading that effort and refocusing the debate on how we could make the department better in the face of what was alleged,” Pelland said.

Afterward, members of the grounds crew were issued uniforms to give them a stronger sense of pride in their work and a connection with each other. Pelland issued radios to members of the crew to help improve communication in the field. He also began a practice that still continues: a department-wide meeting held every month.

“We meet monthly as a department, just for 30 minutes, but we meet every month,” Pelland said. “We are not going to resolve all the questions at those meetings, but they will at least see the light of day.”

The latest storm that Pelland and his department have faced is the unprecedented campus construction since the state bond issue for higher education was approved in 2000.

As Jim Alty, then director of Facilities Services said in his nominating letter: “Professionalism and efficiency have never been in higher demand than during Carolina’s recent capital improvements program. Kirk responded proactively to the Higher Education Bond Program, protecting the flora and trees identified in the Chancellor’s Task Force on Landscape Heritage and Plant Diversity.”

Pelland’s “no net loss of trees” initiative ensures that a fee will be paid for any trees removed due to construction, Alty said. Collections are used to buy and plant a new tree for each one that is lost.

Pelland also led the way to train and prepare his team to be able to restore the landscape with quality plantings after building projects are finished. “Considering the enormity of this challenge, (he) has done a superior job retaining the beauty of our campus during a very turbulent time,” Alty said.

A place for dreams to grow

Forestry is both a science and an art to Pelland. But in a University setting, the practice of it serves an even higher calling.

Although his job is about taking care of the trees, it encompasses so much more than that, as Pelland explained with a set of framed pictures he brought to McCorkle Place under the stone bench below the Davie Poplar.

One picture is of Carolina at the turn of the 20th century when the Old Well was simply a well made of wood that people went to for a scoop of cold drinking water. The picture shows a group of what looks to be business folks milling about.

The other picture, taken several years ago, is also of the Old Well in its iconic form. But when showing the picture, Pelland points not to the well’s famous white columns and dome, but to the cluster of students sitting in the grass sitting beside it under a canopy of shade. A professor is standing in front of them lecturing.

“That is my goal: to have landscapes where you can have classes out on the lawn. That’s what we want to see,” Pelland said.

His job is about trees and bushes and grass, but it also about the effect all of them together can have on people — an effect that can be even more powerful than a pretty picture.

Carolina is a place where students come to plant their dreams. And by preserving the serenity and beauty of the place, Pelland knows that he and his crew are doing their part to help bring those dreams to life.

Originally published by University Gazette: July 18, 2007

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