SK’s George Bailey learns what we think of him

Everyone knows and loves the story, a perennial Christmas favorite.

Everyone knows and loves the story, a perennial Christmas favorite.

A kind-hearted, small-town boy takes over the family business after his father unexpectedly dies.

With the help of his wife, mother and other family members, he quietly and steadily touches the lives of thousands of people.

Modest and unassuming, he doesn’t realize the extent of his influence until he is dramatically shown.

While his character is unimpeachable, not all of his employees operate with the same integrity — and one commits an act of such foolishness that it brings the family business to the brink of bankruptcy and scandal.

Horrified and distraught, the small-town boy steps up and takes responsibility to set things right. He offers what he has, but greedy men bent on destruction deem it unacceptable.

With no time to spare, he sends up a frantic prayer asking for a miracle and then, seeing none, stands on the edge contemplating losing much of what he holds dear.

Until …

Then you respond, because we’re not speaking today of Jimmy Stewart playing the iconic George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in the small town of Bedford Falls.

We’ve been watching it unfold for Rick Gehring and the entire Gehring family in front of our eyes in our dear old Port Orchard.

While George had the angel Clarence to show him what his life meant to others, Rick, his wife Karin, mother Glennys and Aunt Louise have the hundreds of well-wishers who braved the cold and threat of snow to file through the restaurant when word reached them that the store would close on Dec. 14 after nearly 50 years of business.

It’s doubtful one could find a person in the whole of South Kitsap untouched by the generosity of the Gehrings.

They’ve given to seemingly everyone in the community — the South Kitsap Future Farmers of America, the South Kitsap High School swim, basketball, football and cross-country teams; Cappella Choirs; Western, Southern and Eastern Little Leagues; the Saints Car Club; American Legion Post 30; SKYAA basketball; girls softball; the Port Orchard Party; SKSD Vocational Work Experience Program; and many more.

No PTA treat bag or plastic Easter egg would be complete without a coupon for a free Buck’s A&W root beer — all traditions started by Buck and Glennys when the SKHS grads returned from college to settle in their hometowns with Buck working in the restaurant his wife managed when he was on break from teaching and coaching at Marcus Whitman Junior High School.

They saw a need and responded.

So when word of their distress reached the community, it spread like wildfire. Traveling with speed across the Internet, in blogs and on networking sites like Facebook, the injustice of the situation aroused a community’s passion.

And as it dealt with its anger and grief, it responded to the Gehrings with generosity and love — a simple, selfless love that buoyed the family’s spirit and gave them hope.

No one held back. Robert flew in from California to be with family. Kids returned home from college early.

Old friends and former employees, including Terry Goodwin, Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce “Woman of the Year,” came from far and wide to don an old Buck’s A&W uniform and help feed the crowds that seemed endless.

One, Rick Bonn, drove for four hours from his home in Cannon Beach, Ore. Catching Rick Gehring in a big bear hug, he said, “My dream has always been to open a restaurant that services the community like this. And when my father e-mailed me from Arizona that you were in trouble, I drove straight through, getting two speeding tickets along the way. But it didn’t matter. Nothing would stop me. I had to come.”

“I consider myself family,” said Al Kono’s lovely widow, Jennifer. “Do you know how many people were there for me? It’s a humbling experience. I had to give back.”

Countless people agreed. Someone put up a pledge board and pledges. Many in the hundreds — and some in the thousands of dollars — poured in.

Katie Saddler and Carmen Bloomfield-Martin from Carmen’s Connections set up a “Bucks 4 Buck’s” bucket brigade and had to repeatedly empty buckets filled with coins, bills and cards with the word, “miracle” written on the envelope.

Cathy Hamlett organized a work crew and Shanta Sykes, sports teams.

Port Orchard resident and Tacoma General Hospital nurse Tina Soete took five days off to prepare for Christmas and gave the Gehrings four of the days. The SKHS basketball team went into double-overtime to win Friday’s game and present an autographed ball.

Students from the high school spent their after-school hours downing burgers.

SKHS sophomore David Heney, who was born in Seattle but raised in Port Orchard, exclaimed, “I have always loved A&W. It’s my favorite restaurant.”

“This is South Kitsap’s Arnolds,” said Jodi Moore, making a reference from the 1970’s television show, “Happy Days.” “It’s a place for kids. I always bring my exchange students here for the feel of a real American restaurant.”

Her 11-year-old son Ben insisted the family’s Hawaii trip fund be presented to the Gehrings, all $19 of it.

He asked, “Can we give it to Grandma Louise to keep A&W open?”

That question was on everyone’s mind. “Can we do enough? Can we make the difference that would keep the place open?”

Ron Boehme asked the question when he pledged $500 and promised to help establish a “Settlement Fund.”

Mayor Lary Coppola asked the question when he came down on Saturday to declare the following day “Buck’s A&W Day” in Port Orchard, reading a proclamation that included the words, “Whereas it is with a heavy heart that the City of Port Orchard watches one of its oldest businesses forced to close its doors in today’s declining economy,” before sharing his personal sentiments, “Closing this place is wrong and it hurts my heart.”

Bone weary and emotionally drained, Rick expressed similar thoughts on Wednesday that, “The closing of Buck’s feels like death by a thousand tiny cuts.”

Yet by Sunday afternoon the stories that had poured in had provided balm to sooth his soul.

“I didn’t even remember some of the stories people share about Buck’s,” he said. “They’re amazing. The last five days have begun to heal the pain of the past five years.”

He and the family are still reluctant to accept any of the gifts of money, even those in the Kitsap Bank’s Gehring Fund, while cherishing those of friendship.

“We Gehrings — my dad, Buck; mother and Aunt Louise – are used to giving,” he said. “But we’re not used to receiving. Not like this.”

Yet they continue to hope and pray for a miracle. The possibility exists.

While Mr. Potter didn’t grace George with a return of the Building & Loan’s $8,000, there is the chance that the law firm of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell will recognize the value of Buck’s to the community and lower its demands, accepting a drastically reduced settlement and stopping the threat of an attack against the family’s personal assets.

This change will have been brought about by what Glennys, her face radiant declares, “The community we’ve loved for all these years.”

If so, Clarence with his new wings is right.

Mary Colborn is a Port Orchard resident.