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Profile In Safety
Robert Reetz
Chief Boiler Inspector, State of North Dakota
Robert Reetz

Original publication date: Spring 1995

It's the stuff movies are made of: youngster grows up in family of eight, is educated in a one-room schoolhouse, overcomes stuttering problem, earns not one but two degrees, goes to live in a commune, participates in the Tour de France, and finally becomes a renowned international authority on the constitution.

Okay, maybe the Tour de France is stretching things a bit. But Bob Reetz is an authority on the constitution. The National Board Constitution, that is.

And that's why he's chairman of the National Board Constitution Committee. Few know more about the complexities of this significant procedural document than the North Dakota chief boiler inspector. In addition, he serves as first vice chair of the National Board Board of Trustees.

These are but two of a number of responsibilities the North Dakota official has held with the National Board since joining in 1983. And considerable responsibilities they are. Of course, Bob wouldn't have it any other way. He's always been known as a hands-on type guy.

"I guess you learn to fend for yourself when you grow up one of eight children," the state official reminisces with a quick nod of the head.

The son of a farmer, Bob recalls plodding along via horse and sleigh on infamously cold North Dakota mornings near his hometown of Hebron. The destination: a one-room schoolhouse with a class of five students, three of whom were named Reetz.

For the future North Dakota chief boiler inspector, growing up in a large family was not as difficult as dealing with a challenge of a more personal nature: stuttering. It wasn't until he took a part-time job while a senior in high school that he came to grips with his disability.

"I went to work at a drug store," Bob volunteers, readjusting large-framed glasses atop the bridge of his nose. "I stocked shelves, ran some deliveries, and even worked as a sales clerk." Having to deal with the public, he quickly learned, was an uncomfortable experience for someone with a stuttering problem.

"The man I worked for encouraged me to confront the situation by talking with as many people as I could," the boiler chief fondly recollects. Those who had occasion to speak with young Bob Reetz that summer noticed a gradual reduction of stuttering incidences. What they soon discovered: behind his fear of public discourse was a lad of considerable intelligence.

Bob was graduated second of his senior class of 131 students. His grades were such that he was able to earn a National Science Foundation grant to study math and chemistry at North Dakota State University. In his first quarter, young Bob Reetz earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

"Having reflected on what I could do with degrees in math and science, my only real options involved teaching," Bob explains. At a time when he was still having difficulty with his speech, teaching held little allure.

The future National Board official was graduated in 1971 with bachelor of arts degrees in both history and English. He proceeded directly to graduate school where in early 1972 he ran out of "money and motivation."

To replenish the former, Bob went to work on an oil rig. "On my first day on the job," he recalls, "it was minus 42 degrees with a wind chill of between 88 to 90 below!"

To rekindle his motivation, Bob refocused his attention on an old college activity that would soon become his personal and professional passion: bicycling. "In the spring of '72, I took off on my bike from Fargo [North Dakota] for a trip to the Great Lakes," he explains with grin.

Having returned from his 1,000-mile adventure, Bob went back to North Dakota State University later that year and decided in the spring of 1973 to open up his own bike shop in Grand Forks. "I actually lived in the back room of the shop with my inventory, a sleeping cot, and an adding machine."

Business was good for about a year, Bob recounts. But then came an invitation he couldn't refuse. "In 1974, the bicycle racing trend was really hot in Oregon," he explains. A contact he had made in the sport invited him to the Great Northwest to become a racing mechanic.

"For a 24-year old, it was a dream come true," the boiler chief recalls. And so Robert Reetz headed for Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. In addition to fixing bikes, he became more involved in racing them as well.

He also became involved in a new lifestyle, something that was quite popular during that particular era. "I lived in a commune," Bob offers with a half-smile. "Actually," he quickly notes, "I lived in a tree house in the backyard."

Bob's career as mechanic/racer took him to 1975 and the Nogales Stage Race in Tucson, Arizona. "It was here that I came to the conclusion that I would never make a living in the racing business. I was a good but not great biker when it came to racing, and I knew my limitations."

Returning to North Dakota and then to Iowa, the former professional bicyclist got a job as a welder at a tire-retreading plant in the summer of 1975. It was shortly thereafter that he met his wife, Lois.

Bob left the plant following a two-year stint, and went on to later work for the state water commission before taking a job in January of 1979 as a North Dakota deputy boiler inspector.

In 1982, Bob's career took a sudden turn when he was given an ultimatum by the state chief inspector. "He flat-out told me to take the National Board Commission examination or leave," the North Dakota official explains. He passed the exam later that year.

Six months later, Bob's chief inspector traveled to the National Board General Meeting in Vancouver and promptly announced his resignation. "I was named the acting chief inspector within days," Bob remembers. "However, I was only supposed to take over until a replacement was found."

But a replacement never surfaced. "Acting" was removed from his title in February of 1987.

Today, the North Dakota Boiler Department is comprised of two deputy inspectors in addition to the chief inspector. Over the past several years, Bob has been able to achieve a number of improvements in the North Dakota program including implementation of the NBIC in 1991 and last year's adoption of "R" stamp requirements.

Asked what he considers one of the most important challenges facing inspectors over the next several years, Bob offers without hesitation: "Their own safety."

According to the state official, "Few realize how physically demanding being an inspector can be." And Bob has the battle scars to prove it. Since 1992, he has undergone surgeries to repair both his right and left knees, and has recently had back surgery. Each surgery, he says, was necessitated by injuries sustained from years of inspecting equipment.

But Bob has no regrets.

As for his adventures from that one-room schoolhouse to the head of North Dakota's boiler division, Bob admits that yes, perhaps it would make a good movie.

"I know I'd go see it," he deadpans.


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