Mover and shaker
Lumber industry executive Dennis Clark was missing one thing: a formal education
By Patty Wellborn
|Dennis Clark was a successful executive for a large forest products company when he decided to come back to school and finish his high school equivalency, and then his BA in Adult Education at UFV.|
If you had met Dennis Clark (BA Ad Ed ’10) five years ago, you would have been convinced that he had everything a person could need. The Mission resident was at the top of his career, earned a good living, had a loving family and a nice house, and enjoyed international travel. However, something was missing from his life. And it bothered him so much that at the age of 44 he retired from his 33-year-career in the lumber industry and embarked on a new adventure. The one thing missing? A high school diploma.
As a young teen and at a tumultuous time in Dennis’ family’s life, he left school to work at the Whonnock Shake and Shingle mill. He was young and knew that leaving school was a not good decision, but he also knew the value of hard work and a dollar. He didn’t think twice about the dangers involved in work at a sawmill, and he appreciated the union pay. He was motivated and a fast learner. His short-term goal was to pay for his own brand new Corvette.
While he quickly rose through the production ranks, the limits of a structured union environment and little education became apparent. A move was in order. Dennis got a job at Waldun Forest Products and was told by the president that if he stuck around and worked hard, he would someday run the place.
Dennis worked harder than ever — he became a millwright’s apprentice, then a millwright. Several promotions followed, and before long, he switched his coveralls for business clothes. The company continued to thrive, and Dennis rose to the top of the corporate ranks. As his boss predicted he did end up running the company and he remained with Waldun for 21 years. He left when he was offered the vice-president role of a large international forest product company that employed a thousand people.
But while he wrote reports, attended meetings, set policy and procedure, and made formal presentations to executives, his ‘school of hard knocks’ education continually troubled him.
“It was always there,” he sighs. “I was functioning in a role that required credentials and skills I did not have. Whether speaking in public, or by written communication, I frequently questioned my ability. My lack of formal education made me uncomfortable.”
For many years, Dennis had thought of returning to school. But he would dismiss the idea knowing that it would be tough — as years passed, the idea seemed more and more remote.
“There is rarely a good time to make life-altering decisions. The need to take direct action frequently requires some level of discomfort.”
However, Dennis finally decided that a Grade 8 education was simply not going to cut it. With trepidation, he visited UFV and met with Sue Bridgen, UFV’s Upgrading and University Preparation program head.
“Sue immediately made an impression on me. She truly cares about the people in her program and has a great passion to help others. We spoke about many things, and I became convinced that it was the right time to return to school. Sue convinced me that I could accomplish my educational objectives.”
UUP offers a 10-month program designed to help adult learners earn their high school diploma. While Dennis was nervous, and progress was initially difficult, he quickly proved that hard work — the same approach he had used to thrive in a mill — also helped in the classroom. He excelled at his studies.
“Dennis was a dedicated upgrading student who was absolutely committed to learning,” she says. “He was diligent about completing all his assignments and would go above and beyond to ensure he had mastered the course work. Never one to give up, he spent hours trying to understand a problem in his math text, and only stopped trying to solve it when he was told there was an error in the text and the example was wrong.”
In one school year, Dennis completed the necessary upgrading to finish Grades 9 through 12 and he graduated on the Dean’s list.
“It wasn’t easy,” he admits, “and there were always questions and self-doubts. I may have completed my courses quickly, but I don’t want to trivialize the commitment I made to succeed in the program. Some concepts were difficult to grasp and they required perseverance.”
There were also sacrifices. Dennis’s family was quite young when he returned to school and there many evenings when he would have rather been hanging out with them. Inspired to do his best by many of the younger people in his classes, he was determined to accomplish his goals.
|Dennis now has plans to begin his Master of Education with a specialization in law, justice, and ethics.|
“UFV’s instructors are dedicated to their students. I received a great deal of personalized instruction and encouragement — right from the very first class. I don’t think the staff could have done anything more to help me. They were with me every step of the way.”
Dennis got more than his Dogwood at UFV. He became a “hungry learner”. Passionate about education, he couldn’t get enough of classrooms and books and his success gave him the confidence to continue with his education.
He immediately enrolled in UFV’s Bachelor of Arts in Adult Education. It’s a flexible degree program with a part-time schedule, and students can take as long as they need to complete their degree.
Through UFV’s Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition program, Dennis was able to transfer credits from his Millwright certification and his provincial instructor’s diploma. He graduated this spring with his BA in Adult Education, made the Dean’s List (GPA 4.21), and received the Outstanding Achievement award as the top student in his program. He gives UFV a great deal of credit for his academic success.
“I had come to a point in my life where I truly wanted to make significant changes. I returned to school as a non-traditional student with a very limited amount of formal education. I came from an industrial background that rewarded toughness. Looking back now, I was pretty rough around the edges. My instructors and other students made many allowances for me as I adapted to university life. I am truly grateful for the unselfish attitudes and inclusive policies I found at UFV.”
His passion for learning didn’t end with his degree. Dennis has plans to begin his Master of Education with a specialization in law, justice, and ethics. What sets Dennis apart from many other mature students is that all the time he was studying he continued to volunteer to improve safety conditions for people working in the forest industry.
Having been injured as a young man, Dennis had a personal commitment to safety issues for young workers. He earned a diploma in occupational health and safety in the mid ’90s while serving on the Workers’ Compensation Board forest products advisory committee, He also participated in focus groups, and helped develop the Young Worker Training Initiative. It is now a legislated requirement in the workplace.
Dennis’ work has been published many times, and he now consults with multiple industry organizations, the insurance industry, and legislative bodies. His book on workplace safety for the shake and shingle industry was the first ever for that sector and the result was a 40 percent reduction in serious injuries for shake and shingle worker. In 2008 he received a nomination for the Lieutenant Governor’s Award in Public Safety.
The comprehensive safety system developed by Dennis is now available for distribution through the BC Forest Safety Council and WorkSafe BC. He also served on the technical advisory committee for manufacturing, and has been recognized by WorkSafe, and the federal, provincial, and municipal governments for his ongoing contribution to workplace safety. His latest work, the Shake and Shingle Safety Program 2010, is now the standard operating safety system in that industry, and serves as a template for other sectors.
Dennis credits his recent contributions in workplace safety to the skills and confidence he obtained while at UFV.
“Returning to school has forever changed my life. I would never have considered taking my volunteer work to this level without the experience and credentials I obtained from UFV. I am proud of the education I received at UFV, and will never again be limited by a lack of confidence in my ability to produce professional results.”