What really brings a community to life? What helps to make it become home?

For those of us “new” to Franklin County and Carrabelle, that community life often appears in the person of one or more local resident citizens who, in their own way, will help to make a new town the kind of home it will ultimately become to us.

We were new homeowners in Carrabelle over the Christmas holidays of 2003. We had bought a small house, right in town, with the intention to make it our winter residence. (Far northwest Wisconsin can be a frigid place to spend the November to April months when aging bones and joints begin to ache.) Favorite daughter and son-in-law were already at home here in Carrabelle, so during our family visits to see them, we echoed their residency decision, house-shopped and moved forward with the wonderful local realtor ( who also became our dear good friend) to purchase the Helen Schmitt house on West Sixth Street.

Closing was scheduled for Dec. 30 but was delayed as Helen and her friend Charlie kept moving many, many, many personal items out of the house well into the next afternoon! When we finally could call the house our own late on New Year’s Eve, much cleaning still needed to be done. By then, holidays had closed all the stores. But we were unwilling and unprepared to move items like a large bed into a bedroom with carpet that badly needed cleaning.

It was then that our favorite son-in-law somehow contacted hardware store owner Rush Gander. Gander returned to his store to make a rug-cleaning machine and equipment available to us newbies, despite the year-end holiday, and even allowed us to make payment for the equipment at a later date. It may have seemed a small gesture to some, but for me, his generosity of spirit helped to make Carrabelle become home.

Now, as if testimony to the familiar adage “Only the good die young,” Rush Gander is losing the fight of his life. The cancer that he fought so valiantly with expert care and treatment is taking over his body each day now, and as he announced to me yesterday, “I am terminal.” With a hug and tears, I reminded him we are all “terminal” in this life, and thanked him for the good fight he gave this terrible battle. As a cancer survivor myself, I always hope that the world of medicine learned something from my encounter, and now his, and that those lessons can be used to better help another sufferer. Rush agreed the fight had been important to him and his family, that he would never have wanted to give up without a battle, even though the war had been a terrible one for them all.

So, the man who helped make Carrabelle home for me will be gone too soon, I fear. Rush celebrated birthday #73 last week, and will share a golden anniversary with his beautiful bride on the 21st of this month. We agreed that both are noteworthy accomplishments and, as he said, “Not many couples in today’s world will ever be married for 50 years to the same person!” (Perhaps you will take a moment in your busy holiday schedule to wish them your own congratulations?)

Rush, and the humanity he brought to his hardware business have been intrinsic to this community, and to our family, for all the years we have lived here. His unfailing greeting, smile and concern for his customers’ needs and wants always served as a reminder that together, we were all part of Rush’s community. Indeed, with his support and model of leadership, his family has also given tirelessly of their own talents and energies to help nurture and guide Franklin county’s children. In addition, his grandson has spent many months working with him, learning that family business and developing a special relationship connection made more fruitful and meaningful by the absences and demands of the awful illness and hopeful treatments Rush has suffered.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Rush Gander of Carrabelle has been honorable, compassionate, relevant and necessary to many of us in his community, which is now ours too. By living, working, investing and leading by example, he has made a difference for all of us. His life, lived well, has given us much for which to be grateful here.

I think Emerson would have liked being in Gander’s town. I know we do!