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Nurturing compassion the key to Bolstad’s service to community
CHUCK BOLSTAD stands on his family’s farm in rural Vernon County in front of some of the beautiful hollyhocks that he and his wife Karen grow. The farm is very important to the couple, and caring for the land is a big focus for them in their retirement.

FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP - You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more empathic and intuitive member of the community than retired North Crawford School District guidance counselor, Chuck Bolstad.

It seemed Bolstad knew from an early age that his calling was going to be helping young people. His education in counseling prepared him to help kids overcome the emotional and psychological barriers that could prevent them from obtaining an education and becoming productive members of the community.

“The hardest thing about my career in education counseling was encountering the various childhood traumas of students in the district that impacted their ability to learn,” Bolstad said with some tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “The whole theory that school counseling is wrapped around is ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ or ACE. Impacts from problems, many of which occur outside of the school, are cumulative – they take a toll and can be hard to overcome.”

Bolstad explained that small schools, like North Crawford, have an advantage in helping students overcome various traumas to get a good education.

“At North Crawford, the whole staff works as a team,” Bolstad said. “The person that makes the most difference may not be the most highly paid person in the building.”

Bolstad retired from his position as guidance counselor at North Crawford School District in 2003. Apparently, though, when you care as much as he does, retirement is sort of a relative concept. Bolstad continued to serve in the National Guard at Fort Douglas as a technician for seven years after retirement. He had signed up first in 1971 – three days before graduating from UW-LaCrosse.

Recently, in order to help the district while another employee was out, Bolstad actually returned to work for North Crawford, as a guidance counselor.

“It was challenging to go back because a counselor’s stock-in-trade is relationships,” Bolstad said. “When I went back, I didn’t know any of the kids anymore. I’d go to school early and make a point of greeting the kids as they got off the bus.”

Bolstad said that he had been gratified by the experience because even without knowing him well, some of North Crawford’s students had chosen to share parts of their life with him. The parents were also really kind, and gave him lots of thanks.

“My nicest compliment was at an awards ceremony at the school,” Bolstad remembered. “A student made a point of thanking me for bringing kindness to the school. That meant a lot to me.”

Just jump in

Giving back to the community that has given so much to him and his family seems to be part of Bolstad’s DNA. Although he is approaching 70 and has certainly taken the opportunity to slow down since retirement, his ‘slow’ doesn’t seem slow at all.

“After retirement, there is an air of waiting for a revelation about what your passion is,” Bolstad said. “I say, just jump in, try something and see if it’s a good fit. If it doesn’t work, then try something else.”

Bolstad advises retired members of the community to “do what you can.” He says he takes pride in not being very smart because “smart people don’t learn very much.” All in all, he says that he feels fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people, and his passion for the things he does in retirement has evolved organically.

“All contributions great and small are valued and needed,” Bolstad explained. “Just take the first step through the door, and see where it winds up. It’s not like having a job – in retirement you have more freedom and more opportunity.”

Since retiring, Bolstad has played a key role in spearheading the formation of the North Crawford Community Education Foundation (NCCEF). The Foundation’s fundraising promotes learning in the district through ‘Excellence in Education’ grants to enhance learning, and through scholarships to help students continue their education beyond graduation. 

“Community members have supported our fund raising efforts with gifts of all sizes, displaying their generous desire to participate in the efforts of NCCEF to provide opportunities for children in the district,” Bolstad said.

“We are able to make these awards because so many in our community have become a part of the foundation’s effort to further the education of our children,” Bolstad explained. “The funding allows the district to offer graduating seniors financial assistance to help them pursue further education after graduation.”

Not only that, Bolstad has recently been elected Chairman of the Board of Southwest Technical College (SWTC) in Fennimore.

“SWTC’s board is the best board I’ve ever sat on,” Bolstad said enthusiastically. “The board’s decisions are always made using consensus, and the college has survived tough economic times to come out as a shining asset for our rural Southwest Wisconsin community.”

Care for environment

Bolstad has also been a key player in the Farmer-Led Tainter Creek Watershed Council. The group of innovation-minded farmers got their start in the autumn of 2016 following catastrophic flash flooding in the watershed. Since then, they have received full funding through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Producer-Led Watershed Council grant program for two years.

“I’m humbled to be a part of a group of real farmers who are juggling their farm bottom lines with their concern for the environment and the good of the land,” Bolstad said with quiet pride. “It’s inspiring to be part of a group that understands that the value of environmental and community wellbeing is equal to, or greater than, the profit to be realized off of a few more bushels of corn and beans.”

Bolstad credits Matt Emslie of Valley Stewardship Network for bringing the group together.

“Following the big storm and flash floods in 2016, Matt went door-to-door, talking to farmers about the need to stop their topsoil from eroding and reduce the runoff from their fields in the increasingly large rainfalls the area had been experiencing,” Bolstad recalled. “Farmers were frustrated by the fact that they and their communities were not receiving much relief from the impacts of the catastrophic rains.”

Bolstad talked about how the group had held two amazing education events in 2018 – the ‘Free Fishing Streambank Education Field Day,’ and hosting a presentation by eminent soil scientist Ray Archuleta. The watershed council recently held a successful repeat of the Free Fishing Day event in Star Valley. They have more educational events planned later in the season.

“Not only did our group hold all of those amazing educational events, but we also provided funding to help increase installation of cover crops in the watershed, and conducted a round of well water testing,” Bolstad recounted. “We plan to repeat both of those successful efforts in 2019. The group is also launching a three-year study of the impacts on water quality from increased pasture and grazing with the Wallace Center Pasture Project.”

Bolstad seemed particularly proud of the private-public partnerships that have developed with the group.

“Valley Stewardship Network, and Matt Emslie in particular, have been instrumental in our group’s successes,” Bolstad stated. “But we’ve also had excellent collaboration and support with the Vernon County Land Conservation Department and the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort.”

Some fun and family

Despite his busy, post-retirement pace, Bolstad and his wife, Karen, also had some fun and relaxation in mind after retiring. Karen Bolstad spent the bulk of her working career teaching high school English at North Crawford. The two decided that after retirement they would ride their tandem bike in every state in the lower 48. He said that they had achieved about 25 percent of their goal, bicycling in a dozen states.

The family farm was another major focus for the two. The Bolstad family had originally settled on their farm on Stump Ridge in the Tainter Creek Watershed in Vernon County in 1897.

“I grew up on the worst farm in Vernon County,” Bolstad said with a twinkle in his eye. “My grandfather chose to settle there because he said it reminded him of Norway. It’s basically 40 acres of clay and rocks with highly erodible slopes.”

Bolstad was sentimental as he recalled looking at a photo on the wall of his house that shows his family in the old house on the land.

“I think about that photo a lot,” Bolstad said. “That sense of rootedness and the history of my family on the land is the reason that Karen and I chose to hold our 50thwedding anniversary celebration there – it’s a very emotional thing for me.”

Bolstad explained that his father had retired from farming and sold some of their land on Stump Ridge. However, his father had held on to the ‘home 40-acres,’ and when Bolstad graduated from college in 1971, he signed a land contract with his father to keep the land in the family.

Though Bolstad was always aiming from a very young age to get back to the farm, his career and family took him elsewhere for many years. After earning his Bachelor’s degree from UW-LaCrosse, Bolstad went on to earn a Masters in Education in Laramie, Wyoming. From there, his career took him and his family to Peshtigo, Wisconsin; back to LaCrosse to work for Viterbo University; McFarland, Wisconsin; Mauston, Wisconsin; and finally, full circle back to Gays Mills in 1985 to work at North Crawford–where he would spend the rest of his working years.

“Our farm is located in the Kickapoo School District, so Karen and I bought a house in Gays Mills,” Bolstad said. “We raised our two children there, and both of our children graduated from North Crawford.”

The Bolstads’ son, Paul, 44, was born while the couple lived in Laramie, Wyoming. He is a teacher in the Montgomery City School District in Maryland, and has given the Bolstads a granddaughter, Tallulah, age six. 

The Bolstads’ daughter, Jennifer, 43, lives in New York City and works with her husband as a landscape architect and urban planner. She has given the Bolstads a grandson Elias, six, and a granddaughter Elsie, 10 months. Elsie is named after Chuck Bolstad’s mother.

“Being lazy has its advantages,” Bolstad said at one point. “A normal person would have had everything on the farm all fixed up. Fortunately, the farm has provided Karen and I with all kinds of projects to accomplish after retirement and it keeps us plenty busy.”

Having finally moved back to the farm after they retired in 2010, the Bolstads, who are anything but lazy, launched into multiple endeavors on their 40-acre farm. They run beef cattle on their pasture, helped to form a Maple Syrup Co-op, planted bigger gardens, and helped to restore the old Folsom School House on Vernon County J.

“Karen and I worked with a group of former Folsom School students to restore the old school house,” Bolstad remembered. “Since about 1996, we’ve taken on responsibility for mowing the grounds, and every year we hold a reunion there.”

The Bolstads were also able to spend the later years of Chuck’s mother Elsie’s life with her on the farm, and foster a beautiful relationship between her and her grandson Paul.

“My Mom sold her house in Readstown and came to live with us on the farm,” Bolstad said. “She spent the last 10 years of her life there, taking care of Karen and I. My son’s first teaching job out of college was in Westby, so he lived with us on the farm. He and my mother were able to form a great connection.”

Chuck and Karen view their three grandchildren as “treasures and gifts,” and make sure to visit them multiple times per year, so as not to be strangers to them.

“Every summer, our children and grandchildren come to the farm to visit, and Karen and I invent little chores for them to do so they will understand the benefits of the rural lifestyle where families work together,” Bolstad said. “In turn, Karen and I always find time to travel out to where they live a couple of times every year.”

Bolstad remembered fondly that his mother Elsie was his model for being a grandparent. He recounted a story of when his mom had had surgery, and his four-year-old son “took care of her.” It was really, he explained, an example of a beautiful, two-way nurturing.

As Bolstad wrote, on the occasion of the baptism of his granddaughter Elsie:

You know, Elsie is not a very common name. But today, I am thinking of my incredible good fortune of having two Elsies in my life. The first 55 years of my life I had my mother Elsie and now I have Jennifer’s second born, Elsie Bea Meyer, to share the rest of my life with… I hope that little Elsie has somehow inherited just a bit of the incredible strength of her grandmother… There were not many days that she chose not to do something physical, especially if it had something to do with planting, moving and replanting some flower. Yet for the strength of those large hands, I know that all of her grandchildren treasure one or more of the many quilts she made for everyone that she loved with those same strong hands… But more importantly, I hope baby Elsie gains the emotional strength of her namesake. Her Great Grandmother survived some really awful things that came her way and yet never gave up or gave in to bitterness, anger or spent any time feeling sorry for herself. Elsie lived in the time of WWI and experienced the prejudice reserved for Germans immigrants. And I still marvel at how a mother could lose two children to car crashes and not become embittered. Or have survived multiple episodes of cancer and come through stronger not weakened.