by Judy Hodgson

Photo of Lois Busey Lois Busey (Photo by Kevin Fox)

IN THE MID 1950s, LOIS BUSEY AND HER IDENTICAL TWIN SISTER Louise were well known to the switchboard operator at the old Hammond Lumber Co. in Samoa. The two little girls would often come rushing
through the front door, stand on their toes and wiggle their fingers above the counter.

"We were so short she couldn't see us. That's how she knew we were there," Lois recalled.

The operator would then call over the loud speaker back in the plant, "Merle, your kids are here!"

Hammond Lumber Co., was eventually bought out by the Georgia-Pacific Corp., which later became part of the new Louisiana-Pacific (see separate story).

When Busey graduated from high school in 1967, she embarked on a 31-year career in the timber industry that started with her meteoric rise from G-P mail girl to head of public relations for the L-P's Western Division. It would not be unheard of to see her on the company's yacht, jetting off to Mexico, or rubbing elbows with the likes of Tom Selleck and Oprah Winfrey. She served under eight L-P Western Division general managers beginning with Harry Merlo and became the personal assistant to the last four. And she outlasted them all.

Her brother-in-law, Eureka accountant John Goff, who is married to Louise, once joked at a chamber of commerce dinner that in Humboldt County, L-P really doesn't stand for Louisiana-Pacific. It stands for Lois' Place.

Busey's career with L-P ended last month when she walked out the door for the last time. The company has sold or is selling nearly all of its California assets including timberlands. The once mighty Western Division of the giant multinational corporation built by Harry Merlo was effectively dismantled in a reorganization two years ago after Merlo was fired.

In one sense, the environmentalists were right. L-P has finally cut-and-run from the state that has some of the strictest environmental protection laws in the nation and a lingering reputation for being anti-business especially when compared to Rocky Mountain states and those in the south.

Most L-P employees in Humboldt County will probably be keeping their jobs. Pulp mill workers are waiting for that facility to be sold but will not likely be laid off by new owners. And employees of the timber and sawmill operations purchased by Simpson Timber Co. last month will become Simpson employees.

But ironically, Busey and about 50 other administrative staff who were employees of the Western Division headquarters in Samoa are being laid off or transferred.

The stacks of scrapbooks that Busey has meticulously kept over three decades containing every newspaper clipping she could get her hands on will not be going back to L-P headquarters in Portland, Ore., Busey told The Journal in an interview last month.

"It's a new L-P now, a new regime. All this stuff (about the Western Division) that's been sold or shut or closed or gone they really don't need the history," she said.

It's an understatement to say Busey has mixed feelings about saying goodbye to the company she has been wedded to her entire adult life.

"Will I be sad leaving? For 31 years I've been coming through that front door. My car comes across the bridge so automatic, it's unreal.

"The emotional part, that's going to be hard. But leaving work right now won't be because it's not as rewarding as it was when it was the old management structure" meaning Merlo and Co.

"Leaving the work won't be as hard as leaving the life," she said.

L ois and her sister were born in Eureka but moved to Samoa when they were 6 months old. Their father, Merle Annis, was hired by Hammond primarily to pitch softball and when he didn't have a game he worked in the mill.

"He was one of the best in the state. Hammond would often end up in the finals back in Wichita (Kan.)," Busey recalled.

Busey said she has never had a resumé because you didn't need one to get a job back then. Timber was king and jobs were plentiful.

In 1967 when she graduated from Arcata High (there was no bridge to Eureka and students were bused along the peninsula), she didn't think about going to college. Girls in those days, she said, went to college "to become nurses or teachers" and she was anxious to get to work.

She worked three months as a mail girl and then, over the next five years, bounced around from one department to another doing clerical work. At 22, she was office manager at the Arcata plywood plant.

"I was getting kind of tired of that kind of work restless. Someone said, `like a fart in a hot skillet,' " she said.

Those were turbulent times for Georgia-Pacific. Because of its rapid growth and monopolistic tendencies, the federal government forced the timber giant to break up its holdings in 1972.

"L-P was in the process of spinning off from G-P." Busey said. "There was a public relations manager at the time and a tour guide-type person who assisted him. On Friday, I asked if I could be considered for the vacant tour-guide job and they said, `You can have it.' "

The following Monday she was sick with the flu and stayed home. When she reported for duty Tuesday she discovered that her new boss had been fired and she was asked to fill in and handle public relations for the L-P's Western Division.

"I was so young. I had no background, no training nothing," she said. "I went back to my old boss (in the plywood plant) and started crying, saying `I can't do this' and he said, `Yes, you can.'

"I was very lucky. The gentleman who was taking over all public relations for L-P brought me up to Portland for a seminar."

There she became better acquainted with Merlo, the former vice president of G-P and president of the new L-P.

"I spent some time with Harry, got to know him, and he said, `What we'll do is give you six to nine months. If you can handle the job, we'll give you an assistant and it's yours.' "

Those who know him say that snap decision was typical Merlo.

Harry Merlo and Lois Busey (Photo courtesy of Lois Busey)

Photo of Harry Merlo and Lois BuseyT he next 25 years was one wild ride for Busey. For nine years through Western Division General Managers Merlo, George Schmidbauer, Doug Clayton and Phil Nell she was in the hot seat as the head of public relations. And then, getting antsy once again for a change, she switched to the position of assistant to the Western Division general manager during the tenures of Tope Knauf, Joe Wheeler, Bob Simpson and finally, Keith Matheney.

Merlo, Busey said, was "overwhelming.

"Harry also lived in town (Samoa), so I knew him as a resident. And having him as my boss, he was a little intimidating. I was in awe."

Although Merlo critics are plentiful, Busey remains a steadfast defender of the man who became her guide and mentor.

"I travelled all over the United States with him. I've been to places and seen things that I would have never, ever experienced if he hadn't given me the opportunity.

"Working for Harry, there was no bureaucracy, no chain of command. You could pick up the phone and get an immediate response.

"We had 43 plants when we spun off from G-P in 1972. When Harry was let go, we had 126 plants. You don't do that in 20 years unless you are a forward-thinking entrepreneur."

And the downside of Merlo?

"He could be a tyrant," Busey said.

The general managers of all five regional divisions, including the Western Division, were responsible for turning a profit.

"It was production, production, production," Busey said. Merlo accepted no excuses.

"He could fire you on a nickel if you weren't doing what you were supposed to."

He did fire many of them over the years they didn't resign first.

Merlo was initially in charge of the plants in the Western Division. When L-P acquired F.M. Crawford Mills, they also got George Schmidbauer who took over for a short time as general manager of L-P's Western Division.

"George just didn't like the large corporate structure," Busey said. "He was a great guy but he wanted to do his own thing." He then founded Schmidbauer Lumber.

Busey was still handling public relations when Clayton was general manager. His tenure, too, was short-lived, however he was followed by Nell, who lasted 11 years. Nell was fired by Merlo during a time of great turmoil the expansion of Redwood National Park in 1978.

"He wasn't as forward-thinking as Harry wanted him to be," Busey said.

"When Tope Knauf came on board, I became his assistant," she said. "He could be gruff at times, but I got to know him and I liked him very much."

But Knauf, too, fell under Merlo's ax. Busey attributes his termination to personality differences.

Then came the tenure of Bob Simpson, the son of a vice president of L-P and close friend of Merlo. Busey remembers it as a period of rapid expansion for L-P, especially the Western Division.

"We kept acquiring mills in Nevada, Ohio, Alabama. The division kept growing."

Simpson was being groomed as Merlo's replacement. Merlo saw him, Busey said, as "the person who was going to bring California back into the limelight as a profitable operation.

"And it was working," she said, but in 1996, awash in lawsuits and federal probes, the L-P board of directors fired Merlo, something that still angers Busey today.

"They blamed him personally the legal problems, the mis-manufactured boards, the environmental issues.

"I don't believe in my own heart Harry would have condoned it if he had known. I think he was a scapegoat. The people under him were doing the wrongdoing.

"But," she added, "as president, he should have been aware."

Simpson lobbied for the chance to be Merlo's replacement but the board refused and he resigned.

The last Western Division general manager Busey served as assistant was Matheney. Matheney was here just four months in 1996 before moving to Portland to become vice president of marketing when L-P was reorganized.

Today, L-P divisions are grouped around product line, such as plywood and board plants, sawmills, timberland and insulation.

F or nearly two years now, the former Western Division headquarters in Samoa has operated with a skeletal crew compared to its heyday.

"We've been doing our own thing," Busey said, pointing to the empty general manager's desk. Top management on site in addition to Busey has consisted of Bill Windes in public relations and Controller Ron Martin.

Busey continues to serve on numerous community service boards and agencies, which has always been part of her duties. She is a commissioner for the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, an alternate on the California State Coastal Commission, and a member of the Humboldt Arts Council Advisory Board and College of the Redwoods Foundation League, among others.

There was no formal going away party planned for her last day, June 30, just a cocktail party for her and others who are leaving the same day.

"The sad thing is after 30 years or so of what I consider a very rewarding career, I would like to have left on my own accord."


L ooking back over the tumultuous years working for L-P in particular and the timber industry in general, Busey said:

"Some of the things we did would not wash out today." In particular, overcutting timberland, and damage to watershed and wildlife habitat.

"I think forestry of the past was a seat-of-your-pants thing, a guy out there with his boots on walking around."

And there was the siege mentality in the timber industry of keeping competitors, the government and especially the environmental watchdogs as uninformed as possible.

"Back in the old days, you just did not share your (timber) yields or plans with anyone," she said.

Those days are gone. Today, with technologies like global information systems, timber yields and regrowth data are readily available for anyone via satellite.

"There is no excuse today. We have the ability to know, to see the future. All of us are under the microscope now. And, to be honest, I think it's a good thing."


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