Saturday, November 22nd, 2008
Finding his way out of the dark
Woodworking becomes niche for Coldwater man suffering blindness
By Shelley Grieshop
Marvin Uhlenhake of Coldwater works on one of the towering drying racks he makes. . .
COLDWATER - Marvin Uhlenhake begins his daily walk to the workshop behind his country home as tall trees sway in the wind.
The grassy pathway leading to the door is as familiar to him as his wife of 25 years, yet his steps show apprehension and take him a few feet off course.
"I see shadows, things moving about, but not much else," says the 50-year-old Coldwater man, who suffers from a disease that is stealing more of his sight each day.
In 1993, the father of four boys was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare illness that causes the eye's retina to slowly degenerate. In time, he will be totally blind.
Marvin, who experienced light sensitivity problems most of his life, was forced to give up farming - his lifelong occupation. Grudgingly, he eventually signed up for disability.
Downtime didn't last long, however. His wife, Patty, wanted a second laundry drying rack similar to the wooden one the couple received as a wedding gift back in 1983. With some trial and error, Marvin created a pattern for a rack that stretches more than 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
"Friends and family heard about it, just by word of mouth, and he's had orders ever since," his wife laughs, adding "he's not looking for business." He already sold dozens.
It takes Marvin about a month or 40 hours to complete one rack. Although he did little woodworking prior to losing his eyesight, his craftsmanship is impressive. He sands each piece until it's smooth as silk, his wife says.
Patty, who works two jobs, helps keep her husband in supplies - wooden dowels, screws, sandpaper, etc. Most of his wood comes from Dues Lumber Mill down the road.
"I tell Ben (Dues) to get me the thickest he can get," Marvin says.
Patty has become the caretaker for her husband's safety, much like she did for her children years ago. Their home is neat and tidy - a must. Items left lying around will surely become obstacles for Marvin to trip over, she adds.
The workshop, where the hum of a portable heater takes the chill from the air, is as organized as their sprawling ranch house. No one messes with Marvin's space, Patty says, "that's his."
"He knows where everything is. We don't dare touch anything," she adds with a grin.
Without the advantage of seeing his work clearly, Marvin uses his rough, calloused hands to feel for imperfections in the wood. Electric saws and other equipment are operated by his sons, Ben, 23, Brian, 22, Nick, 19, and Keith, a 17-year-old high school junior.
A local radio station keeps Marvin entertained as he works until eye strain gets the best of him. Relatives and neighbors such as Don Broering often drop by to talk about the weather, the most recent Coldwater Cavalier sporting event or the progress of the latest rack.
"Marv's nephew, Jay (Uhlenhake), comes by a lot. He's only 10, but he rides his bike down just to say 'hi.' He's a neat kid," Patty says.
Marvin appears to take his vision loss in stride, although its evident he has fears. He recalls an afternoon when he shook sawdust into a nearby field and lost his sense of direction back to the house.
"I knew I had gone too far when I came up on the road," he said. "I ran into a tree, too, before I found my way back."
Doctors have urged Marvin to get a seeing eye dog but so far he has resisted.
"He says he's got me," Patty says with a chuckle, as her husband quickly smiles back.