It was October, 2020 in Bozeman, Montana, and I visited my parents as I try to do as often as possible.
My mother told me in so many ways that Dad's cancer was to the point of no return. That he would be on a path that would ultimately lead to his death. He had fought for the past couple years to stave off cancer and the fight was well worth it as he lived a full life. That fight was about to be over.
It was January 27, 2021 when the email came in. The note was from David Olson, Oboz's Midwest Sales Rep. The subject of the email was "The Tree Planter" and it was about the Bawek family in Arcadia, WI. They owned Bawek Shoes, a long-time staple of the Arcadia retail scene and excellent sit-and-fit footwear retailer. More interestingly, perhaps, was the fact that the family patriarch had another obsession—planting thousands of trees on local lands. Might Oboz be interested in sending the patriarch Glen a pair of shoes to celebrate that his obsessions so closely aligned with ours?
It was January 29, 2021 when Craig Bawek and I first connected on the phone.
I wanted to hear more about his family and family-run shoe store. The conversation went very well and Craig began to tell me the story of his father and how his passion of shoes and trees filtered through his family and his community. Craig was honest about the fact both Glen, a robust 89 1/2 years old, and his store Bawek Shoes were close to the end of their lives. After 20 minutes on the call, I told him about my own father's journey at the end of his life. We immediately bonded over our shared paths. Craig and I scheduled a time for members of our team at Oboz to talk to him, his father Glen, and his son Cole, and hear the story for ourselves. It was as compelling, as we had hoped.
It was March 2, 2021 and I received the call from my mother that my dad had passed at the age of 87. I quickly made my way to the hospital to join her and provide whatever solace I could. I will never have my father in my life again...it is a stark reality when you lose someone forever. Unfortunately, an hour after his passing, I received word that my brother was in the hospital and facing critical illness that would lead to his passing 7 days later. The unthinkable had happened again.
It was April 23, 2021 when Craig Bawek and I spoke again. "How's your father doing, Rich?" Craig asked before we talked business. I caught him up on the pain that had struck my family in those 7 days and you could hear the compassion in his voice. He worried about the inevitable time he would lose his father and related the time in the past 2 years when he lost his brother.
It seems the times when you think are most alone, someone right next to you has been through their own journey and can help out. "I want to come to Arcadia and tell your family story in a short film," I told Craig. While it would ultimately be a great story to tell for Oboz Footwear, I knew there was another reason to tell this story. I wanted to celebrate a family and, more importantly, the power of a father and his bonds with his family.
The shoot lasted only a couple days in May of 2021. It took me from Bozeman, Montana to a town of 3,000 in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside. It changed me forever.
Glen Bawek, it seems, is a man like few I have ever met. So staunchly dedicated to the craft of fitting, selling, servicing, and repairing shoes, AND planting thousands of trees, Glen is emblematic of my father in so many ways. They are both family-first. They both revolve around principles that are just malleable enough to enforce while bringing more to their cause. And, they both have impacted their families in so many ways. Glen Bawek, as we quickly discovered, was the definition of patriarch. The family revolved around his passions and moral compass like a planet does our sun. The family, you could tell, thought about whether he would approve of decisions before they were cast. He had imposed his love and doctrine on them, and they on to their descendants.
Oboz is celebrating the story of Glen, Craig, Cole, Lee, and the rest of the Bawek family because of a chance phone call earlier this year. Or maybe it was because forces of nature. I have wondered often. But I recently stopped wondering why I was connected with this family and story, and just thanked them for letting me in. For letting me have the joy of a father for a few more days. And as I left Arcadia, Wisconsin for the drive back to Minneapolis and the plane back to my beloved Montana, I thought about how much my father would have liked Glen Bawek. How they could have chatted about life and family at the Kozy Kitchen diner next to the store in downtown Arcadia. And, ultimately, how much Glen would have liked my father as well. And how my father would be proud of my desire to tell his story.
So here’s to dads. And to the kind of retailers that still matter in places that have always mattered. And to trees that anchor so much that is important in the world.