By all accounts, Neal “Mike” Ward has more than earned a life of leisure. After all, he served in the Korean War as a front line fighter and as an Army journalist. After the military, he returned home to New Jersey, where he used his writing skills working for newspapers. He even tried his hand at a graphics arts business. Later in life, after discovering America in a Winnebago, Ward decided that he and his wife should settle down. He now occupies his days at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in Asheville, N.C., where he works full-time – at the age of 83.
Most people your age are on the golf course or sitting leisurely under a shady tree. But you work?
I’m a member of the engineering group at the Southern Research Station, and I do anything they ask me to do. Indoors, we maintain the buildings. There always seems to be something breaking. We change the light bulbs. If the toilet gets plugged, we unplug it. We move furniture. We’ve been doing a lot of that lately. I’m just a 40-hour-a-week stiff just like everybody else. And I love it.
When I first started, I was under a different program. I was not actually an employee of the Forest Service. I started at a place called Bent Creek Experimental Forest on the Pisgah National Forest near Asheville. It’s where the Forest Service tests seedlings sent to us by customers wanting us to know which seedlings are the most naturally resistant from fusiform rust, which is a disease caused by a fungus. That’s the second largest destroyer of lumber after forest fires. It ruins a lot of lumber, and we test loblolly and slash pines because so far none live in this area. So, if one of the seeds runs away, it won’t survive here. All that was in ‘89 or ’90.
Then in 1993, I transferred to the station here in Asheville right after our great big snowstorm of the century. In 2003, or about then, I started mowing lawns, removing brush and doing all sorts of things here. I inspect the vehicles monthly. Last year, we started a pollination garden, which was done by volunteers. There are all sorts of plants that encourage honey bees and butterflies. We get lots of humming birds. In fact, we’re buzzed by them quite a bit. They’ll take me on. They’re tiny but rough guys!
You sound very happy in your job.
I’m just happy most of the time. I enjoy working here very much. Good people doing good work, and I enjoy it. They are very intelligent folks, and we have a lot to talk about. Most everyone talks to me here, and they don’t feel that they shouldn’t talk to me because I have such a lowly position. Ph.D.s will explain things to me when I ask questions, and I enjoy that. I like the business of learning constantly. What I do best is enjoy life. But I’m very articulate, as you can see.
I’m just a good old boy. It’s very different than my life in New Jersey, so that’s why I keep working.
It’s great you’re having such a good time. Talk a little bit about what brought you here.
I’m from New Jersey; Monmouth County. I left New Jersey and went into the Army in 1948 after World War II. The public information specialist program at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania sounded good. It was the only thing I really knew how to do. My father was a newspaper man, and I sort of grew up in the milieu, if you were. That’s why I wear suspenders. All real newspaper men wear suspenders.
I went to public information school then later I was able to go to still photography school at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually slept at home while training. I was 19 at the time. In 1950, that’s when the Korean War started, I was at Fort Bragg, N.C. What convinced me to leave Fort Bragg was the fact that I was helping publicize a victory the 82nd Airborne had during World War II. I thought this was kind of dopey. There is a real war going on, and we’re going to have a divisional review for something that happened five years before. So, an opportunity came up to join the Airborne Rangers. I believed in the mission, and I wanted to do what I could to chase the bad guys away.
I went to Korea, but they disbanded our unit seven months later. However, we were airborne qualified so they said, “If you want to maintain your status, you can go to Japan and join the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team.” Well, most of us were delighted to get out of the badlands and go to Japan and sit around and have geishas wait on us and bring us tea. Oh, it was terrible duty.
You have quite the sense of humor. While in Japan, you reconnected with an old buddy who convinced you to get back to Army journalism. But you also made a lifelong connection of a different kind.
Yes. We started a newspaper for the regiment. The regiment went back to Korea in April 1952, so it was another tour in Korea, but this time I was writing stories and taking photos. I got one big article in the Pacific Stars and Stripes, and then that was later picked up.
We did finally go back to Japan, where before I had told this obstinate Japanese girl I wanted to marry her. She told me to “Get outta here!” She even used the old dodge that I should go back to the states and, “If you love me, you’ll come back.” Well, when I went back for my second stint, she said she had missed me. I’ve been married to Aiko for 58 years. We have two boys and four grandkids.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.