Remembering Former FPL Director Robert Youngs

Robert L. Youngs, director of the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) from 1975-1985, passed away Saturday, April 25, 2020 in Blacksburg, Virginia at the age of 96.

Robert L. Youngs, FPL Director 1975-1985

Bob first heard of the Lab when he was studying wood technology as an undergrad at the College of Forestry at Syracuse. FPL’s famed Wood Handbook was one of his textbooks. Later, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Bob’s advisor had previously worked at FPL, and Bob recalled he “was very effusive in his praise of the Laboratory as a place to work.”

Upon graduation, Bob wrote to FPL inquiring about work, but there were no positions available. One year later, he inquired again and his timing was right. FPL had just received some extra funding related to the Korean War, and Bob was hired on to work in wood drying. He continued in this line of research, even studying it as he earned his Ph.D. from Yale, and eventually helped developed the original Dry Kiln Operator’s Manual, one of the Lab’s most popular publications. 

Bob moved steadily up the ranks from a wood technologist to leadership positions as the Lab, including Project Leader in wood engineering and Division Chief—what we now call Assistant Director—for solid wood products research.

In 1967, Bob was named Director of the Division of Forest Products and Engineering Research at the Forest Service headquarters in Washington, DC, followed by a stint as the Director of the Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans. In 1972, he returned to Washington to become the Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief for Research where he served until his career came full circle and he was appointed Director of the Forest Products Laboratory in 1975.

During his early days at FPL, Bob remembered a steam whistle sounding every morning at eight o’clock, signaling the start of the work day. Although the whistle was taken out of service later in the 1950’s, it was briefly reconnected for the Lab’s 75th Anniversary. As the retiring director, Bob (right) and incoming director John Ericson pulled the cord together to sound the whistle one last time.

During his career, Bob was interested and active in promoting forestry and forest products as an international endeavor, as well as bringing government and academic research institutions together toward common goals. He was actively involved in the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), and after his retirement from the Forest Service in 1985, joined the faculty at Virginia Tech.

Throughout his career, Bob authored numerous publications for the Forest Service in scientific and trade journals on physical and mechanical properties of wood, nondestructive testing of wood, and forest products utilization. One such article from 1982, “Every Age, the Age of Wood,” demonstrates Bob’s deep understanding of and appreciation for the value of wood to society, both historically and in the possibilities it still holds for the future.

Bob’s first impression of FPL “was that here was a rather immense organization with tremendous history, and I wondered how I could ever really become part of such a very large institution, that had already become rather well established in the field of forest products research.” It seems his highly accomplished, decades-long career that followed answered the question quite nicely.

Quotes in this article were taken from Robert Young’s interview for an oral history project conducted during the Forest Products Laboratory’s centennial year in 2010.