Alumni Profiles

Strictly for the Birds
A retired dentist turns wood, wire and paint into a colorful flock

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Forbes Getchell '47 sits at his work bench, tweezers in hand, eyeing a bit of 18-gauge wire no thicker than a strand of heavy thread. Gently, slowly, he crooks it just so, putting the finishing touches on a tiny four-toed bird's foot. Then he reaches for another bird, its 2-inch wooden body still in progress, and shares his sanding secret: Just run your thumb along the surface of the bird, and you'll be able to tell what still needs work. "Birds don't have any flat places," he says, chuckling.

Getchell is perhaps better prepared than most to pursue his passion for carving. Before he took on birds, he worked on teeth, developing a steady hand during his 30 years as a dentist in Newmarket, N.H. When he retired in 1981, his local celebrity continued as he expanded his carving career. In his workshop, tucked into a tiny room at the back of a low-ceilinged 18th-century home he shares with his wife, Sylvia Fitts Getchell '47, Getchell brandishes a small knife he once used for making wax teeth molds in dental school. Today, its familiar handle worn smooth by more than 40 years of use, the knife creates delicate wings and tiny feathers.

Getchell's house is filled with birds--perched along narrow shelves, flocked together in empty corners. He picks them up gently, holding each one in his palm, reciting their names like a sort of avian poem: scarlet tanager, hairy woodpecker, marsh wren, snowy owl. Here's a diving kingfisher. And here's a great blue heron balancing on a bit of driftwood. And they all have those delicate wire feet.

His work isn't fancy. It doesn't come close to the level of detail and accuracy that characterize carvings entered in competitions--the kind that cost thousands of dollars. "The average person can't afford those," says Getchell. "But they can afford mine." At local craft fairs, people line up for a chance to buy one of his creations, and Getchell often sells out. One customer has a wall of specially built shelves to display her collection--more than 200 species in all.

Getchell, who turns 90 this year, still gets up and carves every day. He also gets out for regular walks, always carrying with him a favorite walking stick from his collection. Forget about golf or watching TV, advises Getchell, who scoffs at retirement. Find something you love and keep on doing it.

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