Most of us have all been there – that time when your life plan isn’t working out and an opportunity knocks that would take you in another direction. In the short-term, setbacks can be devastating but it can lead to an amazing journey where you look back and see how things that didn’t work out as planned were just a way to put you on a different path. For me, the story I like to tell (especially to my daughters) is that the reason they are here is because I didn’t get into architecture school.
I was born and raised in Plainfield, IL and always had an interest in art and a fascination with architecture and design. Even at an early age I had planned to go into architecture. It was the career I had been dreaming of and I thought I had the grades in high school to get me into the university of my choice, the University of Illinois. Having done my research, I found that my grades and SAT score, in previous years, would have allowed me to be accepted. Then came the day I got my letter. Due to the larger than usual number of applicants the University was more selective in accepting new students into architecture, and I was denied. It was heartbreaking. I thought about other schools, but another door opened. U of I was part of the dream and there was a glimmer of light as the University determined that I would be accepted in any number of other majors and if my GPA was high enough after freshman year I could transfer into architecture. Having a love of the outdoors I chose Forest Science. Little did I know the direction that would take me in life.
Well, after my first year I enjoyed college, really enjoyed college, and my grades were not up to snuff to transfer but that was OK as I had found I enjoyed Forestry. Then came senior year. There were not a lot of Forestry jobs in the Midwest and I was striking out, but a career counselor called me in just before graduation and said there was an immediate need to fill positions with the US Forest Service (USFS) in Texas. I never thought of Texas but thought, why not. It was a great job working outside on timber crews, doing compartment plans and landlines, but it was only a two-year term appointment. At the end of two years I needed to find another job. I applied time and time again with the USFS but couldn’t even break into the top candidate pool. It seemed I was being directed in another direction. While trying to figure out what to do next another door opened. During my time in Texas I became good friends with a forester from Kentucky, Steve “Crusty” Brown. Looking back now it seems I was led to Texas to meet Crusty. He had just started working for the Florida Division of Forestry and he reached out to let me know of an opening. He was working as a Forester in Sarasota and, from the description, Florida sounded good. I had never thought about a career in Florida and had not been to the State (I didn’t think it had anything but beaches and Palm Trees) but I needed a job so it was off to Florida.
After about 6 months of training (yes, I sat up in fire towers and was Smokey Bear) and getting a dozer stuck in a bog fighting fire at two in the morning, I was promoted to the Leon County Forester (Tallahassee). While there I was invited to a get together hosted by a US Forest Service employee. It was there I met the stunningly beautiful girl who I fell in love with and would become my wife (and who also proofread this blog). Both our girls were born in Tallahassee. Not getting into architecture led me into Forestry, which led me to a counselor, who led me to Texas, which introduced me to someone who directed me to Florida where I met my wife.
As a side note, it was working for the State of Florida that I found an interest in Planning as I worked with municipalities to certify them as Tree City USAs, develop land management plans, administer grants to local governments and review comprehensive plans as they needed to be signed off on by the State. Because I was a State employee any tuition at that time was waived. That opened an opportunity for me to get a degree in Urban and Regional Planning. After achieving the degree my wife and I decided that if we were ever going to move we would need to do it then as our daughters were 4 and 2 and not yet in school. My wife and I agreed that once in school, we were not going to move and uproot them.
It was then that a position came open in Will County, IL near family. It was perfect and we moved to Illinois. After a short time with the County, Plainfield (where I was raised) came calling and asked if I would like to join the team. My role there, as planner and Community Development Director, included reviewing architects’ plans to ensure it met the vison of the Community and setting design guidelines. It was then I realized the opportunities that led me from planning to become an architect to where I am today. In a twist, I had a plan in mind early in my career of being an architect that didn’t work out. However, life led me to ultimately become a planner, allowing me to be the architect of how communities develop and so much more.
My words of advice as a planner and based on my career - always have a plan but be open to new possibilities. There will be challenges along the way but in many cases those issues are simply a fork in the road leading you in another direction.
Jim Testin, AICP is our Planner/Client Relations Manager and can be reached at