Alva Review-Courier -

By Amy Bickel
Hutchinson News 

88-year-old rebuilds home after Kansas wildfire


MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. (AP) — Don Gerstner saw it as a sign from God.

At age 87, he considered retiring from his carpentry trade. He thought about it a few times before, but the phone always kept ringing.

So when his home and barn burned to the ground in the Anderson Creek wildfire, Don and his wife, Carol, saw the miracle in it all.

Their wooden garage still stood - complete with all of Don's tools.

"Someone up there was trying to tell him something," Carol said. "You aren't supposed to retire yet."

She stood on the porch of their nearly finished home, amid a rolling Gyp Hills backdrop of cedar trees and prairie grass. Almost every day of the week for the past 15 months, Don, now 88, has been rebuilding a home on this spot just south of Medicine Lodge where they raised their three children.

All they need now is the air conditioning and television installed. Then, maybe, by next month, they might be moving to their new home, said Don.

He never even considered living anywhere else.

"I've always been an optimist," he said. "I've also been kicked around enough in my life I know you have to go on no matter what happens."

The Hutchinson News reports that Don comes from a long line of skilled craftsmen. His grandfather, on his mother's side, was a builder. His grandfather on his dad's side was a builder. His son, Kyle, is also a builder.

"I kind of got it in my blood," Don said.

They bought a small, late 1800s house on this 40-acre parcel around 1960. Over the years, in between construction jobs, training pointers and delivering The Hutchinson News, he added on to the home - room by room, until it wasn't even recognizable, said his daughter Lisa Gerstner Boston.

"He is a good builder," Lisa, an artist and teacher in Colorado, said. "He has been doing this all his life; he just does it slower now."

She recalled a conversation five years ago when her father said he was thinking of finally retiring.

"He is always thinking of his future," she said. "He said he would like to build one more really nice house before he retires. He just didn't know it would be his."

But on March 23, 2016, Don and Carol were watching the reports of a wildfire blowing into Kansas from Oklahoma. It was heading toward Sun City when the wind switched, blowing it toward Medicine Lodge.

Don had just stopped hosing down the house when the electricity went out. His son, Kyle, called from Lawrence, telling him it looked like the fire was just five miles away.

"I hung up and looked out the kitchen window, and I would say 200 yards away was the fire - it was already here," Don said.

He called to Carol. They grabbed the vehicle keys and left.

"We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs," said Carol.

They headed down the driveway toward the highway, driving through a wall of fire. He thought about his hunting dogs and decided to go back and try to at least turn them loose.

"I got to the bottom over here and there was no air. I couldn't breathe. I know I couldn't' make it to them. I just had to go back," Don said.

They drove to the top of a hill a little ways from the house and watched their home burn to the ground.

When they returned to their smoldering home, they found stairs leading to nowhere. A fireplace partially stood. The insurance adjuster told him it was a total loss.

His prize hunting dog died in the blaze. Two others escaped and were rescued by firefighters.

Don said he served in the Korean War. Things could be worse.

"Nothing bothers me," he said. "I knew I was going to rebuild from the start. This is what I've done all my life anyway."

Moreover, he said he didn't feel like he was 88. He'd never been sick a day in his life. He's only been in the hospital twice, once to take his tonsils out as a youngster, the other just a handful of years ago when he injured his back in a horse-riding accident.

"Heck, I still feel good," he said.

So he got to work. A local businessman loaned him a backhoe to tear out the charred remains. Kyle traveled from Lawrence to help pour footings and build walls.

The work continued each day with friends and family arriving at times to lend a hand. A GoFundMe account also raised several thousand for the Gerstners.

"It is amazing how the community came together to help," said Lisa. "I don't think (my parents) knew how much they appreciated Medicine Lodge until the people came out of the woodwork, saying 'how can I help.' If you drive around Medicine Lodge, you will find many places he worked on. He left his mark all over town and with such a positive attitude. People remembered that."

A daughter, Gwendolee Ellison, a bank loan officer from Cherryville, came on weekends to help. Lisa came too, with her father teaching her to grout and lay tile.

"I didn't know how much finesse you had to have to grout Mexican tile," she said with a laugh.

Her parents taught her a good work ethic, one they both still live by.

"I think that is the reason he is as healthy as he is," Lisa said. "He loves what he does."

Today, a three-bedroom cedar siding home stands in place of the old one. It's complete with a fireplace, walkout basement and master bedroom with a hot tub bath. Don put in sliding glass doors and a small patio off the couple's bedroom so they can enjoy the scenery.

Don said he finished pouring concrete around the house last week.

"It's going to be a comfortable house," said Don.

Carol added, "I'm amazed he built this."

Lisa painted them some original artwork for their home, including one from a photograph that was taken of a cedar tree on the property right after the fire.

The painting depicts the sunset, she said, using colors that represent the blaze.

It hangs in their kitchen.

The work is nearly done, said Don as he walked out of the basement to a concrete slab underneath the deck. When that happens, he is planning on throwing a party on this slab.

"We're going to have a dance," he said with a grin.

Don said he may retire when this project is done. But there are still a few ideas he might incorporate around the house to keep him active.

"I told Carol, when I get old and I'm not able to mow and take care of this place properly, I'll just put in a mini kitchen in the basement and partition it off," he said. "And then I'll get some young people - that if you wash the windows and mow the lawn once in a while, you can live down here for nothing."

This comment doesn't surprise Lisa.

"This area just is such a magical place," said Lisa. "And my dad has a lot of energy in it. He always has been very positive. He is the type who makes lemons out of lemonade."


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News,


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