Guest commentary: With a son now gone, sculpture serves as memoryAbout 20 years ago, when Joe Bothwell was just 4, he did something a lot of other kids have done. He went to Canal Park with his parents and tried to feed the gulls some popcorn.
By: Sam Cook, Lake County News Chronicle
About 20 years ago, when Joe Bothwell was just 4, he did something a lot of other kids have done. He went to Canal Park with his parents and tried to feed the gulls some popcorn.
Joe couldn’t get the gulls to eat the popcorn from his hand, as he had hoped. So his dad, Tom Bothwell of Two Harbors, suggested that Joe sit on his shoulders. That didn’t seem to work, either. So Tom suggested that Joe, still sitting on his dad’s shoulders, put the popcorn on top of his head and wait.
After 10 or 15 minutes, Tom said, a gull came down.
“I still feel those legs squeezing tightly to my neck, and that little 4-year-old voice went, ‘Ow!’ ” Tom said.
It’s a memory that Tom Bothwell will hold forever even though he cannot hold his son again. Joe Bothwell took his own life Oct. 15 at age 24. A talented and loving young man, he had suffered three severe head injuries during the course of his life, which may have contributed to the intermittent depression he suffered, said Tom and his wife, Natalie.
Perhaps you have seen the bronze sculpture near Dairy Queen in Canal Park. It’s the work of Superior artist Sterling Rathsack, and it depicts a man squatting on a ship’s bollard. Atop the man’s shoulders sits a boy who appears to be about 4, and atop the boy’s head is a gull, its wings outstretched.
As his parents tell the story, Joe and Tom were approached that day 20 years ago by a man who said he had been commissioned to do a sculpture for the city of Duluth. The sculptor had seen the Bothwells’ interaction with the gull and asked if he might portray it in a sculpture. Tom and Natalie said they had no objection.
“A year later, maybe two, there was this sculpture,” Bothwell said.
The Bothwells have never spoken to Rathsack about the sculpture, and Rathsack says he does not recall specifically talking to Tom and Joe two decades ago, although he did say he spent time in Canal Park watching people interact with gulls.
For the Bothwells, Rathsack’s sculpture has always seemed a bit personal while also reflecting the atmosphere of Duluth’s lakefront, where the family often visited before moving from Wisconsin to Two Harbors in 1998.
“I think it’s the spirit of Canal Park, of families, of people having fun,” Tom Bothwell said.
Now the sculpture will hold a place among many memories the Bothwell family has of Joe.
“He was just the most wonderful son a parent could have,” Natalie said.
“He was genuine and loving and kind,” Laura Bothwell said of her brother. “He was a real gentleman. He was kind to everyone.”
I need to point out that the Bothwells sought no publicity about their son or his life. I approached them, and they agreed to be interviewed.
Joe had attended Lake Superior College after graduating from Two Harbors High School, studying radiologic technology. More recently, he was renovating a home he and his dad had bought. He worked for a year as a driver for the Duluth Transit Authority.
He also had an adventurous spirit. At age 8, he completed his first of 10 300-mile TRAM (The Ride Across Minnesota) bicycle rides to benefit multiple sclerosis research. He raced bicycles, ski-jumped, skateboarded, wakeboarded and snowboarded.
Joe loved nature and spent a summer in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He made trips to the West, exploring the prairies and camping in the mountains.
One recent summer, he and his friends often waterskied and wakeboarded at the harbor in Two Harbors, his dad said. Tom Bothwell knew that several Ukrainian students worked at North Shore lodges, and he suggested to Joe that he take them out for a boat ride.
“Well, Dad, I’ve thought of that, too. And I’ve already done it,” Joe told his dad.
That was Joe, they said.
His parents knew Joe had suffered from occasional depression for about six years. Medical authorities had told them after one bicycle crash and severe head injury that they should watch for signs of change in his behavior. Still, he was happy and productive most of the time.
Nobody in his family anticipated his death earlier this month. The pain was eased somewhat by a note he left behind. This is what he wrote:
“Thank you all for the wonderful life. I am blessed to have had a great journey with you all and I am fulfilled. I am ready, and I go in peace. I pray that you will be OK, and know that I’ve cherished our love. I will always love you, forever and ever. For gosh sakes, keep smiling!
“Your son, brother, friend.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. This column originally appeared in the News Tribune. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.