This could almost be one of those heartwarming, feel-good — perhaps a bit cheesy — tales that gets made into a Christmas special.
Old guys spend decades in their workshops crafting whimsical wooden signs that they then hang from trees along a ski trail to brighten the days of passing cross-country enthusiasts. Sometimes signs go missing, but no problem, the old guys make more. “The Butt stops here,” the signs warn. Or, “Home Stretch,” they urge, as two examples.
But then, at 84 and 94 years old, the men come to the cold realization they just can’t keep doing it, they just can’t keep carrying on with their gift to their community. So they contact the newspaper to report the sad news. The signs will likely whittle to none the scoundrelous thievery almost certain to continue, they say.
Except then, the community they love shows it loves them and what they’re doing right back. After reading the news stories about the apparent end of an era, neighbors the men don’t even know start reaching out, offering to pick up the woodworking tools and hammers and to carry on a tradition that is “truly Duluthy,” as one of them tells the newspaper.
Yep, this unlikely-outside-of-a-Christmas-special tale is a true one, and it played out this year in Duluth. The volunteers stepped up to help sign-crafters Jerry Nowak, 94, and Glen Nelson, 84, and their labor of love of more than 50 years.
Nowak and Nelson noticed 17 of their 57 signs missing this spring, likely after they were yanked off their nails and cowardly squirreled off to decorate backyard gardens, basement rec rooms, and other private spaces. In other words, most likely, something meant to be enjoyed by all was being pilfered for the pleasure of a private few. How they must enjoy the signs they stole, knowing from the news reports the pain and anxiety — not only for Nowak and Nelson but for our larger community — their wrongdoing caused.
With the signs now going back up and with a new crew of volunteers dedicated to maintaining them, an urging in a News Tribune editorial in November bears repeating: “All of Duluth can be at the end of our collective rope over the selfish and petty actions of a few stealing from the rest of us this unique and rich feature, tradition, and history. … As Nelson said in the (News Tribune in) March, ‘Be a good neighbor and leave the signs alone.’”
Amen to that.