INDIANAPOLIS – Bob Vollmer has stories. Lots of stories.
Tales about teaching himself to build a radio during the Great Depression, digging himself out of an avalanche in World War II and marrying the love of his life and having four kids.
He can regale with anecdotes about his five-decade career canvassing Indiana as a state surveyor, first with a measuring tape and pencil but more recently with pinpoint satellite-guided technology, meeting a mobster and preserving the state’s natural resources for future generations of Hoosiers.
But at age 102 and with 57 years on the job, Indiana’s oldest-ever state government employee is moving on to a new story: retirement.
On a brisk February afternoon, the kind where a white wisp of air gives your breath away, Vollmer surveyed his last property for the Department of Natural Resources. And the next day, Feb. 6, he worked his last day.
“It’s hard, it’s almost comparable to going to a funeral,” Vollmer said of retiring. “I’ve been with the department for so long, I feel like a permanent fixture here. But I know that’s a bit ridiculous.”
His colleagues and supervisors, however, say it isn’t. He’s a staple, an institution, and someone who can’t be replaced. In fact, Vollmer is older than DNR itself – the agency turned 100 last year.
Dale Gick said he has been in awe of Vollmer since he first met him 15 years ago. That holds true to just last week, he said, when Vollmer turned everything in.
“He was still driving a state vehicle, had a laptop, was using engineering software, a cellphone and the newest technology for surveying,” said Gick, the director of the engineering division and Vollmer’s supervisor.
He is constantly going and constantly learning, Gick said. But it’s what they’ve all learned from Vollmer that will stay with them.
Building radios and surviving an avalanche
Vollmer grew up in Daviess County, in southwest Indiana. Born in 1917, he also grew up during the Great Depression.
He lived right down the street from the local library, which became a place of respite: “I had access to lots of learning, and I took advantage.” With a book he checked out, Vollmer taught himself how to build radios as a young teenager.
And when the place across the street from his house kept getting robbed, he learned how to build a burglar alarm – the police actually caught a few people with it, he said.
With his love of tinkering and his knack for radios, Vollmer got a radio telephone license. He was hoping for a job in broadcasting, even traveling to California for it, but everyone said he was too young. But right after “broadcasting” in the yellow pages is “burglar alarms.” Vollmer figured he knew how to build one of those, and found himself working for ADT.
But then World War II began.
After hearing about Pearl Harbor, Vollmer said, he enlisted in the Army, Navy and Marines in 1941, but the Navy was the first to swear him in. Vollmer served in the Philippines. The war also took him to Attu: the last island of Alaska’s Aleutian chain, which is just a few hundred miles from Japan and now uninhabited.
One day, climbing up a mountain to his post, he suddenly found himself tumbling back down – he was in an avalanche.
“I didn’t think I’d make it, and I was saying my prayers,” Vollmer said of being buried under feet of snow. He remembers the utter darkness and the sound of sheets of snow skating over top of him. “But I said to myself that I wasn’t going to give up while I was still alive.”
Without knowing which way was up, Vollmer packed snow around him to create a pocket. He then held up some snow, let go and gravity did the rest – he knew which way he needed to dig.
He arrived home from the war and married Helen Roberta Burres, his hometown sweetheart, and together they landed in California. But he had no clue what he wanted to do. That’s when his wife suggested he go back to school. Vollmer had never gone to college, “but I thought enough of her that if she wanted that,” he said, “then I’d do it.”
After studying engineering and surveying at the University of California Berkeley for a couple of years, Vollmer transferred to Purdue to finish his degree. He and Burres came home, and he graduated in 1952.
Meeting a mobster
Vollmer sometimes wonders how it happened that he started working at DNR. He was 45 years old when he joined the agency in 1963. He took a job as the chief engineer on a dam, which he thought would only last about four years, until he finished the project.
But then they convinced him to stay on as a surveyor.
“They talked me into it,” Vollmer said, adding that it was the idea of conserving the state’s natural resources that sold him. “Just the word ‘natural resources,’ that’s part of our life. The air we breathe, the water we drink, everything connected with this department has some influence on the way we live.”
Which is why he felt his job of establishing the boundaries of the state forests, parks and preserves was so important. When Vollmer started, he was working mostly on issues of encroachment, or people moving their property lines to invade on state property.
He recalls one property-line dispute he was called out on near Bass Lake, in northern Indiana.
He couldn’t understand why all the fences had signs reading “property of Chicago,” but he talked to the landowner and worked everything out – “he was a really friendly man,” Vollmer said.
It wasn’t until later, he now recalls, that he was told the man was a top lieutenant to Al Capone.
That just reinforced his belief that if he was fair, polite and treated people right, he could get along with just about anyone. That was his approach to the task his superiors at DNR gave him.
“I remember what they told me,” he told IndyStar. “They said that when you’re working for the department, you’re here to protect state property. That was my job, and I took it seriously.”
It truly is a job of service, Gick said, ensuring that state land is preserved for future generations. It also is a job of tremendous physicality.
Field surveyors don’t sit at desks, Gick said. They are doing property boundary surveys and elevation surveys and walking across all different types of terrain. They also are going all over: Vollmer’s job took him to 90 of Indiana’s 92 counties, sometimes putting more than 3,000 miles on his car in one month.
“To work with someone that is that experienced and at the age he is,” Gick said of Vollmer, “he was still carrying his weight and could still produce the work that needed to be produced.”
‘Don’t forget the battery, dummy’
When Vollmer started working as a surveyor, he was doing it with measuring tapes, chains and trigonometry — tools that would get him within a few feet of his target. In fact, he was known throughout the agency for his trademark customization of state vehicles: He would remove the hood ornament and install a crank pencil sharpener in its place.
But as technology changed, so did his need for pencils. Vollmer came to rely on equipment that pings multiple satellites to get within millimeters of the point he needs.
That equipment, however, has rechargeable batteries. More recently, he swapped the sharpeners for a sign in his car that read, “Don’t forget the battery, dummy” – which he had left charging on his counter at home once or twice.
Vollmer has always embraced the newest technology, said his direct supervisor, Dean Illingworth, deputy director of DNR’s engineering division. He would even master the new tools before he would be trained on them, taking it upon himself to look up information from the manufacturer, Illingworth said.
“There is no one in the state who can operate this machinery like he can,” he added. “He was constantly reading and learning all the time.”
That love of learning has informed what Vollmer liked to do when he wasn’t working. He got his pilot’s license earlier in life, and he built and raced a boat. He also has numerous books on the Declaration of Independence and loves anything military – his pride and joy is a World War II combat-damaged Jeep that he refurbished and still drives.
Yet as much as Vollmer loved to learn, he also loved to teach. Despite being Vollmer’s supervisor, Illingworth actually learned how to use the surveying equipment from Vollmer. Among many other things.
“I learned to be respectful of that drive and determination,” Illingworth told IndyStar, “and to be respectful of all the knowledge he’s got and all that he can teach you.”
What’s the secret?
Still, Gick and Illingworth never quite thought Vollmer was serious about retiring – he’d mention it every now and then for the last 20 years – until he gave a date: Feb. 6, the day he married Burres.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have anything,” Vollmer said. “She’s the one who put me on the right track.”
His wife died young in 1967 from breast cancer, but not before she and Vollmer had “four wonderful kids.” They raised their children on a farm in Martin County, just south of Bloomington.
In an article for a DNR publication, Vollmer’s eldest daughter recalls him always telling stories, playing pranks, and sharing his love of nature. He also was always teaching, Theresa Spurgeon said, which helped inspire her own career choice in education.
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The decision to retire is not an easy one for Vollmer: “I feel like I’m deserting a part of my life. But I won’t be idle, I’ll tell you that.”
He’s got big plans for his retirement. He wants to travel to the South Pacific to see some of the islands where he fought and visit the cemeteries where his brother and friends are buried. He also plans to build a camera with his grandson.
“I’m not going to stop, I’m going to go until I fall,” Vollmer said. “My service taught me that.”
Just weeks before he retired, Vollmer even completed continuing education to keep up his surveying license. “If you are going to learn, then, dammit, learn,” is his motto, of sorts.
Vollmer recognizes that “he’s getting pretty old” – he said his legs may be slowing down a bit, but the rest of him is running like clockwork.
What’s his secret?
Vollmer said he’s never smoked, he believes in staying active, and he credits a job that has kept him outdoors. But part of it likely runs in the family, he added. When his mom, who lived to be 108, was once asked what kind of genes she had, her response was simple: blue jeans.
And on Vollmer’s last day of surveying, he was donning a well-worn pair himself.
Follow Sarah Bowman on Twitter: @IndyStarSarah.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.