Heart of Treasure Valley: Boise couple travels, collects sticks, and he crafts them into walking sticks

kjones@idahostatesman.comJuly 14, 2013 

In a corner of the garage, Bert Otto makes his way to the high-back swivel chair. It's his little oasis in the tumble of his workshop, in the riot of equipment and projects, items stored or in transit. The chair is his meditative place, and it's where he spends hours and hours - and hours.

He says: "People call it work, but it's not work to me."

Everything he needs is close at hand: his knife, an old cabinet scraper, rasps of various sizes and roughness, sandpaper curled and used but not yet used up. Bert tucks a towel across his legs and hefts his work with hands that read the wood like Braille.

"The most challenging piece of wood. That goes next."

Today, he's working on a piece of diamond willow. He could have selected a stick of mountain alder, or cherry or rose or a piece of ocotillo - or maybe that piece of maple root he cut from a swamp in Minnesota - from the stacks in the corners, from the inventory neatly labeled in the rafters and the shed and the attic.

"There's some scattered around."

The only sound is his breathing and the satisfying scrape of knife on wood. He works, blows away the sawdust, runs his fingers over the texture.

"So the transition feels good. And looks good. If it feels good, it looks good."

The stick is being transformed into a work of art - a functional walking stick or cane, and art nonetheless. Bert will scrape the bark, or not, or carve around knotholes - whatever enhances the natural beauty of the wood. He'll polish it satin-smooth, add a stone or decoration, apply a finish and a rubber tip, and an inventory number.

And then he'll give the stick away.

"I see the resulting joy in the recipient. That means everything to me."

For more than 40 years, Bert owned Rathman Cabinet and Fixture at the end of 5th Street near Julia Davis Park, which turned out handmade bars and back-bars and lunch counters for businesses all over Boise and Idaho - the Eastman building, the Yellowstone Hotel in Pocatello, the old Torch, the basement of the Idanha. Bert built the glass museum case holding the silver service from the USS Boise, a case that was broken into and the silver stolen from in the 1950s.

Boots, his wife: "There's so much history that did come out of (his shop)."

Bert sold his business in 1988, and it was after he retired that a friend gave Bert a partially completed walking stick.

Bert: "And I finished it. And that kind of got me hooked. Well, I needed a hobby, I had good results; it was something I could do. And it had all kinds of benefits. All kinds of benefits."

Boots: "He enjoyed working with the wood again."

Bert: "When I ran the shop, it was a commercial venture, and I had to produce so many completed objects to make the shop viable. And now, if I want to spend an extra hour on (my stick), I can. With no repercussions. It's a very satisfying outlet and I just love it."

Bert's wife is the keeper of the photo albums, a rogue's gallery dedicated to the recipients of Bert's sticks. Together, they've filled two albums, representing the more than 500 sticks that Bert has given away.

Has he thought about selling them?

"Yes, I have and no, I won't.

"I wanted to please people with them, and the money be damned. … That tall diamond willow? I've got 80 hours in that one stick. How are you going to sell that? $400 worth and get $5 an hour?

"No. I have had so much fun in giving them away."

Bert and Boots are a team. "She's my memory and my brains," jokes Bert. They've been married for 63 years."

Boots: "I didn't think we'd make 50 years."

Bert: "You don't think like that when you're that age."

They met on a blind date, or at least an engineered one.

Boots: "(My mother's friend) told Mom that Bert was home from China (after World War II) and … needed a girlfriend and blah, blah, blah. … I didn't want a boyfriend. I was having too much fun. …

"But anyway, we went together for a year. I thought he was a nice boy. I wasn't ready to get tied down, (but) he was. …

"He had an old Army Jeep, and that's how he courted me. And we went all over Owyhee County, hiking and fishing in the lakes … And I decided that I was having fun, too."

Being active is central to their lives. Back then, it was raising a family (one girl and three boys - one recently retired. "Can you imagine?" asks Bert), sage-hen and rattlesnake hunting, riding motorcycles, trips to Silver City, fishing, chasing wild horses - and now, decades later, regular and frequent jaunts in their RV at Good Sam gatherings, where, of course, Bert provides a stick as a much-sought-after door prize. As they travel around, Bert will caution Boots:

"Slow down. This looks like good wood country."

For each new stick, Bert creates an inventory number with the type of wood, date and location. It's the beginning of an impressive, handwritten provenance that culminates in the details of the stick's finish and its new owner. The meticulous record is as much a journal of Bert's life as it is a record of his art.

"There's a little bit of me in each piece. Not much, but a little bit of me in each piece."

Bert remembers a lot, and what he doesn't, he can look up.

Boots: "Everything he does is like that. Perfection."

Bert is reaching for 90, he says (he's 89), and Boots is 84. Slowed down? A little. Resentful? No, says Bert. Slowing down comes with territory.

Bert: "But you're not getting old. You're getting older.

"Don't ever mix the two up. … That 'old' is not part of my vocabulary. Older, yeah, that's inevitable. … Everybody gets older, every day. But you don't have to be old every day."

That's his firm philosophy, even though Bert has a long list of health issues, including difficulties from breathing four decades of sawdust.

"I come back pretty quick (when I get winded). And if I don't do anything and keep my breath, I don't get anything done. And I can't have that. That just isn't me."

Boots is the keeper of the details of their medical status, and Bert lets her speak. Clearly ready to move on to something more interesting, Bert smiles and summarizes: "Anyways, I'm in good shape." That's his philosophy, too.

Bert: "I have absolutely no fear of what tomorrow will bring. … You don't have any control over it, so why worry about it? You do what you can to maintain your health, of course, but you still don't have any control over it."

And they talk about what's really important: Positive thinking. Faith. Work ethic, self-reliance. Honesty.

Bert: "In my book, there's a deep-seated respect. Respect that a person has for another person. I think that's critical."

Boots: "We have the deepest love that anybody could ever have, just all our years; and our (four) children are pretty important to us. … Nine grandchildren and eight greats."

Of course, each of the family has his or her own walking stick (to wit: their photos are in the albums). As the little ones grow, there will be another stick, ready to be cut to size or made to order. The collection of sticks in the corner of the bedroom is just waiting for the right owners.

Boots prompts her husband about the three parts of stick-making that mean so much to him. First is the chase - finding the right stick. Bert has more than 600 pieces in more than 30 different kinds of wood. Second is the work - the challenge of making it right.

Boots: "And then finding somebody that needs one."

Bert: "That has opened so many wonderful doors. Oh, you can't believe it. It's been a godsend to me."

The thought touches an emotional spot, and he struggles for words adequate enough to contain the enormity of feeling.

"The sense of satisfaction of creating something and giving it to someone who appreciates it, who would like to have it, who would take care of it and all the other facets that go along with it. … "

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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