UNIVERSITY, PARK, Pa. -- When Dennis Brett decided to keep his first block of wood, World War II had just ended and Harry Truman was president. By comparison, Penn State's modest wood collection, which has been enhanced as a result of Brett's generosity, was already about 40 years old by that time.
Brett, now nearly 81, was a schoolboy in the Bronx, and his growing passion for wood collecting often would take him to visit the head botanist at the New York Botanical Garden, who inspired him and taught him how to use botanical names to organize his specimens. "Back then, it cost only a nickel to go into the city, so I went about every week," Brett said.
His love for wood was nurtured in a junior high school wood shop class and high school vocational education classes. He then went on to the Pratt Institute, where he studied interior design, architecture and furniture design. "I just had this love of woodworking -- I was always in the shop making things out of wood," Brett said.
Friends and family speculated that Brett had sawdust running through his veins, he recalls. First he worked for several furniture companies -- "until the furniture industry pulled out of New York and moved south" -- and then he developed his own cabinet-making businesses, often installing what he built. Over his decades in the trade, he cut and saved pieces of wood for his collection.
"Different species, different colors, different textures -- I was fascinated by all of it," he said. "When I traveled, I would go out of my way to acquire a specimen if I saw a wood that I didn't have, and I even imported specimens from places like Africa. I got hungry for it and decided to go after having one of the biggest private collections that anybody could possibly accumulate."
In recent years, Brett, who now lives in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, has been looking for a good home for his approximately 6,000-piece wood collection, and he found it at Penn State. Assessed at $202,500, it will be merged with the University's 6,000-plus-piece collection, housed in the Forest Resources Building in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Brett has been a member of the International Wood Collectors Society for more than 60 years and met Chuck Ray, Penn State associate professor of wood products operations, at a meeting a few years ago. He liked what he heard from Ray, who oversees the Penn State wood collection.