Fellow senior citizens, if you’re looking for a hobby that’s fun, therapeutic and makes you feel like Michaelangelo for a day or two, come visit Tomahawk Ridge Community Center at 119th and Lowell on Tuesday mornings to meet the Overland Park Woodcarvers.
You’ll see that all the members except one or two are gray-haired gentlemen, that each owns several dozen carving knives in all sizes and shapes, and that they are happily engaged in shaping wood into Santa or an Indian chief or a little animal or a cowboy. Though each member is drawn to the beauty of the wood they are carving, they gather here for different reasons.
“I like it because it makes me proud of myself,” retired salesman Mike Wolfe said. He’s one of the founding members of the group and is the group’s “Coffee Man” who always arrives first and fills the whole place with the rich, roasted aroma. “I strictly sculpt miniature animals, and the greatest moment for me is when I see that a block of wood has turned into a creature with a personality.” His blue dragon is realistic and fearsome,too.
Ken Robbins, another founding member, has a different approach. “I’m not picky as far as choosing the subject. I want to carve. I just enjoy working with wood. I finished carving an Indian chief last week, and now I’m working on this cowboy.” He lifted about a foot-tall, nearly finished cowboy. “If my new project doesn’t cooperate with me, I don’t hesitate to throw away and begin something else but I might keep this one.”
Charles Estevez also loves cowboys. With its thick moustache, his recently carved cowboy looks so much like the carver himself. Altogether he has carved six cowboys, some of them with guns on their belts and some without, some who ride horses and some who don’t. Estevez is not judgmental of his cowboys’ characters or moral standards.
“Woodcarving keeps me out of trouble,” said Jake Schulzinger, and he laughed. Once he had been an industrial engineer but he became a technical writer for a computer company before he retired a few years ago. “Everything I know about woodcarving, I learned from these gentlemen,” he said. “How did I find the group? My wife told me. She belongs to an exercise group here and one day she told me about a bunch of guys in a classroom working with blocks of wood and carving knives. So I came to see what she was talking about. I’m glad that I found a hobby I like and these talented guys. You can learn a lot here!”
Harold Tharp carves a jolly Santa’s face that’s life-size but only about 2 inches thick. Why carve Santa when Christmas passed months ago? “I make them as gifts,” Harold said, adding that the Santa he’s working on is his fifth since last Christmas. “Unless you begin carving early in the year, you can’t make enough to give to all you want to give when the time comes.”
Does carving Santa have anything to do with the carver’s boyhood memories of Christmas morning?
A crooked boyish smile spread across his face. “I suppose you can say that!”
To Joe Strobl, a former ironworker, woodcarving has been much more than a hobby; it’s been medicine. In 1998, he had a tragic accident at a construction site in which he was electrocuted and fell 26 feet, and he was in a coma for six weeks. “I don’t remember how it happened; I only remember waking up in an intensive care unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, surrounded by nurses and doctors.” After more than six months of lying on a hospital bed, he was released, but it wasn’t the liberation he had hope for. He could never walk again.
In 1999, he joined a 50 Plus woodcarving class at Matt Ross Community Center taught by a well-known artist and teacher named Herbert Cast. Strobl met many experienced woodcarvers with whom he has become friends. “I was only 47 then and was seriously bitter about my disability. But after I began to carve and working with this fine group of men, I was able to distance myself from anger and slowly began to accept the reality that life is given to us as a gift, thus we must enjoy as much we can.”
After Cast’s death in 2008, the group faced a serious challenge: Stay together or disband? The answer was obvious. They didn’t have to search for their new meeting place very long. The group was the remnant of Matt Ross’ 50 Plus program, so Overland Park graciously offered a meeting room at the Tomahawk Ridge Community Center for their weekly gathering.