K2’s history tells a rich story of our not-so-distant past

My sweet godmother Pat Wittman, the first proudly Irish person I ever knew, died last week after a long illness, and so I found myself making an impromptu trek to Idaho to help my cousins and the rest of our big family lay her to rest.

My sweet godmother Pat Wittman, the first proudly Irish person I ever knew, died last week after a long illness, and so I found myself making an impromptu trek to Idaho to help my cousins and the rest of our big family lay her to rest.

On the day of the funeral, the old Irish priest, a clergyman straight out of central casting and one I’d expected to be of the old school of hell and damnation, opened his sermon with a charming if oblique declaration: “Museums are dead places, full of nothing but junk from the past. Art galleries are places of life, and a testimony to the abiding spirit of humanity.”

I had just emerged from three months’ immersion in a K2 Retrospective for the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum, so the irony of his words was breathtaking. The K2 show felt like a perfect amalgam of both art and history, and with it the museum has stepped out onto a newer limb of heritage stewardship.

With this show, the living get to see their own very real history reflected back within their lifetimes. So Father Sean was preaching to at least once choir member with his opening salutation.

I couldn’t help high-centering a little during the sermon, pondering those opening words. It had been a bit of a challenge to put the K2 show together, with admonitions from some Island old-timers that it was foolhardy to celebrate a company that had sent jobs to China, putting so many of their family and friends out of work. A lingering bitterness over the library’s flirtation with the K2 machine shop didn’t help, either.

And as the show began to go up, there were some who were unhappy with the notion of replacing the permanent museum exhibits, even temporarily, with a bunch of shiny skis and posters of young hotdoggers and Olympic athletes. K2 the company was even, initially, a little shy to give its blessings to the show, for fear that such an exhibit might confound the people trying to develop the old facility.

But the K2 retrospective seemed important, especially in the current economic climate. It’s a story of ingenuity coming to timely fruition for Islanders back in the ’70s, when Boeing was handing out reams of pink slips, and serves as a timeless model for creative thinking, marketing genius and hard work in lean times. It’s also a reminder that nothing lasts forever on this Island, or anywhere.

So, the story of Bill Kirschner’s “little company that could” now graces nearly every square foot of the museum and gives anyone with any sort of history with the company and their products a chance to step back, in retrospect, and see just what a remarkable story it really is.

The history of K2 might seem too young to be considered a candidate for residence among what Father Sean went on to describe as “the dead relics” commonly populating museums. (His analogies eventually led to the news that Aunt Pat would be heading for the heavenly art gallery, her soul still very much alive and her life celebrated for all eternity.)

But in the same way K2 is fittingly celebrated as part of our history, the so-called dead relics in the museum cases, ones that recall the more antique chapters of human life on Vashon, can also enjoy a life of their own if they are given a chance for a lively presentation and a robust narrative. The first step is to help people see that ultimately all these narratives lead up to the present and to feel a personal ownership in that history. Whether sepia-toned portraits or living color posters, delicately hand-woven baskets or state-of-the-art fiberglass skis, I like to think all the generations of historical talismans in our museum carry the beautiful spirit of our forebears into present day.

After all, what exactly defines Island history? Is it only those chapters where we recognize our own experience, where change is considered the interloper? Or is Island history one of transitions, where strawberry fields and ski factories give way to a global economy and make room for the next micro-farmer and entrepreneur? Is our heritage only what took place long, long ago? Or could it be what happened as recently as five years back, or last month or last week? How about yesterday? History is a work in progress, something we create in real time and something we can revere in many forms, whether denizens of hide-wrapped teepees or stick-built cabins or mid-century factory buildings or yet-to-be-built performance halls.

When we put up the K2 show, I imagine it was tough for Gene Sherman, whose forebears were the Island’s first homesteaders, to see us take down the grand portraits of his ancestors to make way for a big blowup of a shape ski. His pride in his family’s history runs deep, along with his pride in Island history as a whole.

But I’m hoping he’ll see in this show that the family story goes two directions — not just back but forward: His grandson Jim’s contribution to the retrospective, a bench made from K2 skis that Jim proudly announced were crafted by his grandfather Gene Sherman, himself a former K2 employee, is a lovely sign that the new generation has a perspective of its own and that Jim’s stewardship of that history takes up where Gene’s leaves off. That beautiful bench is alive with history, and everyone who sits on it to watch the old K2 films that are part of the exhibit surely feels that.

Every generation has a right to bring its own legacy to this Island. The native Marpole, Salish and Sho-ma-mish people who lived here thousands of years ago left behind the artifacts and cultural proof of their epoch, which we revere as reminders of lost tribes and honorable old ways of life. The strawberry farmers created their own legacy, and we celebrate that history in an annual festival with scarcely a local strawberry in sight. The Sherman family leaves its legacy, in the folklore of its generations past and the living breathing humanity of its newest youthful generations.

Bill Kirschner leaves a story that, though ultimately corporate, we can all be proud of, founded in a palpable love for what he did and the people who worked with and for him, on Vashon Island and around the world. Each of these chapters ushered in a new generation’s point of pride in their contribution to our Island heritage.

We humans want nothing to change. We fear that a lost job, a lost building, a lost era, a changed intersection spells the end of life. But change is the essence of life.

Aunt Pat, with her priceless Irish wit, could not live forever, and so now we have to keep her spirit alive in the stories of her generous days on this earth as we welcome the new generations of her progeny. The old Irish priest ended his sermon by saying that the only thing that lasts forever is love. I say, bully to that. Let’s love and celebrate all this Island’s history, whether it’s history long since made or the history yet to be dreamed up.

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