Pulse of Philanthropy: Redefining Love in Door County

by BRET BICOY, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation

Central to my father’s definition of love was presence. He was an Army veteran who experienced the burden of command during World War II and Korea. My father trained himself to bury his feelings so the horrors he encountered would not distract him from accomplishing his mission. He became a highly decorated soldier because he made the display of emotions anathema to who he was as a person.

Unfortunately, even after the wars ended, he could not demonstrate his love by talking about his feelings. Instead, my father manifested his love by his presence – by being there whenever he was needed. 

That lesson from my father has served me well. For most of my parental life, I did few things apart from my wife and our six kids other than work. When you have lots of young children, your presence is central to love. On any given day, one of your kids will need attention. If you are not present, you are unable to give it. 

If I were to have hung out at a bar, played poker or golfed, that would have been time I would have denied my many children. My physical presence was central to my love for them. It has only been during the past few years, when the number of kids in our home eventually dwindled to just a single teenage daughter, that I slowly began to take up hobbies that didn’t involve my children.

Now that single teenage daughter is gone. Just a few days ago, my wife and I moved our youngest child, Malia, into her dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As excited as I am for her to begin this new journey, I continue to find myself overcome with sadness by the knowledge that she won’t be there when I get home from work this evening.  

If, at the end of my life, I am remembered as a good man, a substantial part of the credit must go to the lessons my father taught me as a boy. Yet after I left his home in Honolulu to attend college in the Boston area, he didn’t know how to share his love for me when I wasn’t in his presence. 

My university was 5,000 miles away from my father’s home, yet the distance between us often felt greater than that. Mind you, I know that my father loved me. I held his hand as he left this world, but central to his definition of love was presence. He didn’t know how to love when we weren’t present with each other.

This has been on my mind as I’ve watched my children grow up and leave over the past dozen years. Of my father’s many valued lessons, in this one he was partially wrong. Presence is one way in which you can show love, but it is neither central nor essential to love.

This may sound silly, but Door County has caused me to revisit my father’s definition of love.  

I have a friend who lives and breathes Door County. He’s been coming to this place since he was a boy. During his working life, his visits were of shorter duration, but they were on the calendar every year. In retirement, he spent every warm season living on our peninsula. Yet his love is more than just his presence in this place. 

You could find him at meetings of service clubs and sitting in the bleachers of local baseball games. He donates both his financial resources and his time. He has served on the boards of many different charities over the years, each with a different mission to improve some aspect of Door County. When his days are finally over, he wants his ashes to be laid to rest here. Door County is the place most loved by this man, yet his presence here is interrupted every winter.  

Do we doubt this man’s love simply because he is not present with that which he loves for a few months each year? We all know many seasonal residents who love Door County fully and completely, even though they are apart from the place they love from time to time.

My love for my youngest daughter – and for all my children – is not diminished simply because we are not present with each other. If anything, being apart intensifies all that I treasure about my children and makes our time together even more precious. We may not always be together, but I can make sure they know how much I love them.

Contact Bicoy at [email protected].