EGOLFS VOLDEMARS BAKUZIS
Posted Mar 27, 2008
Last Updated Apr 6, 2008
EGOLFS VOLDEMARS BAKUZIS
This began as personal memories about Professor Egolfs Bakuzis, a man I greatly admire, who died several years ago. And for them to cohere and make sense, I used the variable glue of rationality, personal impressions, and what I understood of the circumstances he'd lived through. In other words, the way humans usually understand (and misunderstand) one another.
I sent a draft to Dr. Allen Lundgren, a long-time mutual friend, asking him for a critique. He in turn referred it to Rolfe Leary, a close friend of Egolfs with whom I had not overlapped at the university, Rolfe in turn discussed it with Vilis Kurmis, a countryman of Egolfs, who'd known Egolfs in Europe, and later became a close friend here.
The result reminded me of the fallibility of our memories, especially when writing from casual heresay, and set in a context so unfamiliar as central Europe in the 1940s. So what I'll do here is present what I sent to Allen, polished a bit but not corrected. After that I'll present the critique.
Now, here we go:
I was in regular personal contact with Egolfs Voldemar Bakuzis from June 1954 through June 1956, and for 6 months — December 1955 through June 1956 I worked under his supervision preparing a review draft of his superb species monograph on balsam fir.
I had admired Egolfs from our first meeting; while I worked for him, he became my mentor, though we didn't — certainly I didn't — think of it that way at the time.
Egolfs was a research associate in the University of Minnesota School of Forestry, a position financed by the Quetico-Superior Wilderness Research Foundation. Rather reclusive, he was a superb, fearless, and unremitting scholar, with very poor eyesight, who at that time worked in an out-of-the-way office without a window. Plus, of course, in the library.
His primary responsibility, when I was there, was to produce a manuscript for publication, that would bring together everything known about balsam fir, a prominent forest species of the North American taiga, ranging from the Atlantic, across the continent to Alberta, and very important in northern Minnesota, But his interests spanned the universe.
He could be irascible on occasion, though happily never with me. He did not care for slipshod work or thinking, but neither did he expect others to fully share his work ethic or intellectual strength.
Egolfs had a very interesting life history. Born, raised and educated in Latvia, he was fluent in both Latvian and in Baltic German, and read voraciously and proficiently in English, Russian, and Swedish — that despite eyesight so poor, he was unable to get a driver's license. I assumed it was his peripheral vision that was poor, because his head moved rapidly back and forth as he read.
In pre-World War Two Latvia, he'd been the director of state forest management plans. In 1940, a Soviet army occupied Latvia, and Egolfs, like many other Latvians, "went in zose booshes" — forming a resistance movement. In 1941 the Nazis took over, and the resistance movement changed their targets, though they knew "zat someday zose Russians would come back, and zat would be worse."
In 1944 the Russians did in fact come back. But Egolfs wasn't there. In 1942 or 43, He got his wife and children aboard either a fishing trawler or tramp steamer — some sort of small vessel — that took refugees to Sweden. Then he went to the Germans and volunteered(!) for a labor camp in Germany — where he discovered his wife and children! The refugee ship had been torpedoed and they'd been taken to Germany. After a while he escaped from the camp, and with his fluent Baltic German, presented himself as an ethnic German refugee — they were numerous in Germany — and got employment as a logger. "Zere was manpower shortage; zey asked no questions." He had never logged before, and regarded his new trade as expanding his education.
But soon the learning curve flattened, and he left his job, going to Hamburg, where he interviewed for a position as a university lecturer, telling them he had a master's degree in forestry from Latvia, and had skipped from a labor camp. And they hired him! Which tells us something about conditions in Germany by then. Seemingly it was no longer a matter of "don't ask and don't tell," but of "it doesn't matter."
Then he got his family out of the labor camp. That's called taking charge of your situation and repairing it to the extent possible.
Come spring, he was sent to an experimental forest in eastern Germany, taking his family with him. That's where they were when the Soviet army swept in. There was no longer a front, in the usual sense, just chaos, including streams of German refugees with terrible stories of gang rapes and murders. But Slavs and Balts had been spared much of that — the Soviet soldiers felt a degree of kinship with them — so Egolfs and his family became Latvians again.
And were put on a boxcar with other Balts and Slavs, and sent off for the USSR. From time to time, the train would pull onto a siding, and the prisoners would get out of the boxcars. And if they saw the chance, some would run away, or maybe slip away in the dark I suppose. Twice Egolfs and his family were picked up again by Soviet troops and put on another boxcar, but eventually they reached the British zone, and eventually got to America.
Egolfs was 42 years old when I met him — and could pass for 60.
Despite his proficiency with reading foreign languages, his spoken English then was heavily accented — my wife couldn't understand anything he said — and he wrote it idiosyncratically. Which was how I came to be his assistant. His graduate advisor, Henry Hansen, and forestry dean Frank Kaufert, decided it wouldn't do to send his manuscript out for technical reviews. The writing was too nonstandard. So they sat on it awhile, perhaps waiting for a solution to present itself — a useful tactic when time permits.
When I heard about this, I presented myself as that solution, and Dean Kaufert hired me to do the rewrite. Which I did, with Egolfs critiquing my work and having me verify citations in the library. He was demanding, but nevertheless easy to work for, and in the process I got advanced instruction in holistic ecological thinking, and the philosophy of research. I loved every day of it.
Later his appointment was changed from research associate to professor of forest ecology.
I've been told his accent drove some of his students to distraction; a pity, because he had so much knowledge and so many insights to share. Most of us, though, had no problem understanding either his speech or his writing. During the decades that followed, Egolfs and I corresponded at Christmas, and about 1963 I got a big package from him — his manuscript for a textbook on synecology. He never got it published though. He never considered it ready; there was always new information to be integrated.
A man who could be highly pragmatic, he was basically an idealist. And his religion was science in the largest sense.
Every few years I'd phone Egolfs, back in the years when long-distance calls were expensive. For much of that time he would tease me kindly but pointedly over my love affair with science fiction. But eventually his ever expanding interest in theoretical physics and its philosophical aspects changed that. His last letter was positively spiritual. I doubt he ever sampled science fiction, but he carried on correspondence with theoreticians, sometimes sending me photocopies of pieces he'd read or letters he'd received— and had read to him, for he'd become very nearly blind.
About 2004, a letter I'd sent was answered by a forestry school secretary. Egolfs had died. In his 90s. I wept, not in grief, but…in brotherhood, appreciation and love, I guess, a response that took me entirely by surprise.
I sent a draft of the above to Rolfe Leary, a friend of Egolfs' in a period after I left. Here is Rolfe's reply, which both corrected and expanded on what I had written:
I called Vilis Kurmis this afternoon [Rolfe wrote] to check some details on Egolfs. Here are some points we agreed on:
a) Egolfs was picked up off the street in Riga and sent forthwith to Germany to work as a laborer. He worked in the woods as a "logger", but he also worked as a field crew person for the famous German growth and yield scientist E. Wiedemann, who did yield tables for most German forest species....
b) Egolfs made his way to Hamburg where he became a teacher/professor at Baltic University — the university set up for refugees from the Baltic nations. At Baltic U. he had Vilis Kurmis as a student. [Vilis came to the University of Minnesota in 1961.]
c) When Egolfs and family finally made it to the US  as "displaced persons", he was hired as a laborer at Badoura Nursery, in North Central Minnesota. Pulling weeds, he said. [I wrote the Hubbard County geneological office, which kindly sent me a copy of Egolfs' official intention of becoming an American citizen, signed the very month of his arrival.]
But being the scientist he was, he spent many hours establishing growth plots in neighboring forest stands — on his own time. His work ethic, and his passion for knowledge, must have caught someone's eye. He was able to become a graduate student / research assistant at the St. Paul Campus.
d) Egolfs had almost completed his dissertation at whatever the university is in Latvia. [Or Baltic University?] After making his way to [the University of Minnesota], he showed the final draft to Henry Hanson, who read through it and supposedly said -- "do something for Minnesota..." (or something like that). He did -- he invented (or discovered?) synecological coordinates.
For much of his life in America, Egolfs was an inveterate buyer of books on the sciences, and acquired a remarkable personal library. Later yet, almost totally blind, he offered his collection to the University of Minnesota libraries. They declined the gift, unless he could cover the costs of cataloging it. So, Professor Kurmis told me, Egolfs wrote the university a check for either 10 or 20 thousand dollars for cataloging.
Which tells us something about the problems of financing university operations in a culture where taxes are widely hated, and where consumerism has become holy. And something about Latvian-American Egolfs Bakuzis's sense of values and dedication.
I'm still learning from you, Egolfs. Thanks!