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Rising out of the ashes

A friend of mine told me that his office and warehouse had just burned down and that he lost everything. I told him I truly empathized with him and shared my family’s story of losing our business to a fire. It got me thinking about how my dad and our family got through it, and I realized it was a pretty good story to share about leading through loss, rebuilding, and people doing the right thing.

Memorial Day Weekend 1976 found my family in Florida celebrating my sister’s college graduation. We were waiting for the commencement to start when we saw the dean of the college wading through the rows of chairs coming toward us. He stopped at my dad and whispered something in his ear.

My dad’s face turned white. He said something to my mother and quickly left. I asked my mom what was wrong and she answered, “There’s a fire at the lumberyard.” My dad hopped on the first plane back to Chicago. On approach to O’Hare airport, the pilot announced over the intercom that they were being put in a holding pattern because one of the runways was closed due to a huge industrial fire that was shooting flames hundreds of feet into the air. He said you could see it off the right side of the plane. Everyone was trying to look out the windows to see the spectacle. A passenger saw my dad sitting in his seat on the left side of the plane and said, “Hey buddy, don’t you want to see this fire? It is pretty amazing!” My dad looked at the man and glumly said, “No. That’s my lumberyard on fire.” The rest of the plane suddenly got quiet and went back to their seats. No one said a word until they landed.

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The fire burned for 36 hours. Fourteen fire departments responded. It took nearly 100 firefighters to get the blaze under control. When my mom and I flew back home the next day, my dad picked us up at the airport, and we drove to the lumberyard. As we pulled up, all you could see was a smoldering pile of ash next to our smoke damaged office and store. Sticking out of the ashes was this towering resaw that my dad had just bought and installed. It was devastating. My mother burst into tears and my dad stared at the remains pondering what to do next.

The next day my dad had an office trailer delivered to the site and he and his team set to work. No time to feel sorry for themselves. Everyone had one mission: get the business going again. Luckily, he had purchased a smaller piece of land across town where he had set up a small saw shop and had more lumber stored. A couple of lumberyards in Chicago reached out to my dad and offered assistance, including delivering loads that he had sold and selling lumber to my dad at their cost so he could get back on his feet. I was drafted to go down every weekend and scrounge through the place and try to salvage whatever we could to use or resell. Everything smelled of smoke, as did my clothes for months. To this day I can still close my eyes and smell that acrid smell.

After a couple of months, the business was back on its feet and stronger than ever. The fire acted as a kind of purge that made everybody get rid of the old way of thinking and start with a fresh perspective, both literally with new buildings and layouts, and figuratively with thinking and planning. Like a phoenix, Totem Lumber rose from the ashes and is still going strong to this day. Years later when my brother and I owned the business, one of the lumber companies that had helped out my dad experienced their own devastating fire. We called the owner’s son who had called my dad offering help in the days after our fire, and offered the same help, no strings attached. Karma is a pretty cool thing.

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