Forester weathers slew of storms, preserves campus beauty
They could see it coming from a hundred miles away.
Pelland stands with a campus icon: the Davie Poplar.
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
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
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,”
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
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.
Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series featuring 2007
winners of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late Massey of
Durham created the awards in 1980 to recognize “unusual, meritorious or
superior contributions” by University employees. The award is supported by the
Massey-Weatherspoon Fund created by three generations of Massey and
Weatherspoon families. Chancellor James Moeser selected the honorees from
nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award citation and