BLOOMINGTON — This one was for Bill.
Members of the Central Illinois Woodworkers weren’t strangers to the project they were about to undertake, but this time, there was a personal element.
Longtime member Bill Birckelbaw was receiving treatment at Community Cancer Center in Normal last year when he met a woman who’d lost her hair and needed a wig.
She also needed a wig stand.
Birckelbaw, handy with tools and skilled at woodworking, got to work — despite his own diagnosis.
Although he finished the project he started — the woman received her wig stand from him — he didn’t feel like he was done, friend Todd Johnson remembers.
“He’s always been someone who was dedicated to the community,” Johnson said. “He wanted to do something, he wanted to make a whole bunch more because there’s people across the state and across the country who have a need.”
Birckelbaw, of Bloomington, had the tools, had his own workshop even, and there was no question that he had the skills to taken on the project by himself, had he wanted to do so.
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But at that time, he also had cancer. Sometimes, it got in the way.
“He helped when he could,” said friend and group member John Baker. “But his health was such that (he couldn’t always).”
Baker, Johnson and Gary Robinson were members of the Central Illinois Woodworkers, but they were also friends with Birckelbaw outside of the group.
When his health began to fail, they stepped in to make his vision a reality.
“One time he was disappointed, and he broke down because he couldn’t do it,” Baker said. “He just wasn’t even able to walk down to the shop.”
His friends decided they would pick up where he left off.
Although the pandemic struck not long after they started, they managed to pull together about 700 pieces of donated wood, from which they made 86 wig stand kits for the Central Illinois Woodturners group to finish.
The finished products will then be donated to the Susan G. Komen Memorial Affiliate in Peoria, where they would be distributed.
Certainly it wasn’t the first time a woodworkers group had made wig stands: In 2018, a member of the Central Illinois Woodturners was featured in the Woodford County Journal for similar work.
What made it different this time, however, was that for the four men who put the kits together, there was a new sense of urgency.
“I talked to (Birckelbaw) a few times after he went into the hospital for about a week before he passed away,” Baker remembered. “He said he was very pleased that we did get it done, but he did keep apologizing for the fact that he didn’t finish it up to the end.”
Birckelbaw died on June 12, living long enough to know the kits were finished, but not long enough to see them turned into the finished products he’d imagined.
“I do think we accomplished what we set out to do, which was get the components ready for the turners so that they could turn out the wig stands and get them out into the hands of people,” Johnson said.
Said Baker: “I think he would have been really pleased with it.”
Baker added that “98%” of the work the three men did was directly in memoriam of their friend — but they might not stop there.
Even though “Bill’s passing took the wind out of the sails,” a little bit, Baker said, the three are still weighing their next community service project and they’d like to hear back from anyone with an idea.
“I think our message with this project was: There was an expert woodworker who wanted to give back to the community … and we just wanted to help him achieve that goal,” Johnson said.
In the wake of the completed project and of their friend’s death, Baker said, “We haven’t figured out what’s next for us and we’ll have to probably enlist a new person, since four people and woodshop is what you really need. We just knew that we wanted to help fulfill Bill’s goal.”
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