This past year was one of growth and progress for Smittybread Bakery. Our sales grew as we expanded our offerings, built up the deli business, welcomed many new customers, and enjoyed the continued support of regulars.
But overshadowing all the positives of 2019 was the passing of a dear friend and former baking partner, John Kuckartz, who died on Thanksgiving Day.
John was battling cancer and had just started chemotherapy in mid-November. All seemed to be going well until severe abdominal pains forced him into the hospital. He had only been there a few days when his condition plummeted.
Sadly, I had been unable to visit him in the hospital because of all the Thanksgiving pre-orders the bakery had received. I determined to pay him a visit once the holiday rush was past.
On Thanksgiving morning I slept in before heading into the bakery to make rolls for our family’s dinner. I took with me a baking magazine I intended to take to John that afternoon.
At the bakery I got a text from John’s daughter, Karlie, telling me her dad had taken a turn for the worse. She bid me hurry in case it was my last chance to say goodbye.
By the time I arrived John was no longer conscious and was being prepped for exploratory surgery. I held his arm briefly, said a few words of encouragement, then went back to the bakery. Before the afternoon was over, news came that John had died.
I was left numbed by shock and sorrow, as well as regret that I did not visit earlier in the week. It was, and is, hard to believe that someone I’ve known for nearly all my life, who shared my dreams and sorrows, who laughed and argued with me for countless hours, would no longer be a part of my life.
You see, I’d known John since fourth grade, after my family moved across town and I switched elementary schools. He was a popular, athletic fixture in Klondike Elementary School, and I was a bookish, somewhat anxious new kid on the block.
At some point we hit it off, and I began spending nights and weekends at his house and he at mine. In Fifth Grade, cancer claimed my father. The times I spent with John and his family helped filled the void left by my father’s death, and we remained close throughout high school and afterward.
Our friendship lasted through marriages, divorces, career changes and periods during which we lost contact for months or even years. But we always managed to get back together. For a spell we both ended up working in an all-night truck stop in California. Years later we started a tradition of winter weekend campouts with out mutual good friend Gordo Long.
John’s profession for most of his adult life was heavy highway construction, where he supervised work crews. My profession was in newspaper journalism. Neither of our jobs left us much time for socializing.
Then a few years ago I left the newspaper business, and he took a break from construction. We reconnected, and as I was deciding how to turn an interest in bread making into a new career, he offered the use of his spacious garage.
I moved a Hobart mixer, work table, couple of small ovens and a two-door cooler into his garage and began baking sourdough breads, baguettes and croissants for sale at a local farmer’s market.
When I decided to go into baking full time, John was by my side, spending countless hours helping remodel, move equipment, cajole contractors, and offer words of advice and encouragement.
In 2017 and most of 2018 John was a fixture at the bakery. His specialty was making pretzels, but he also had a knack for mixing and shaping sourdoughs. He once told me he wanted nothing more than to make better bread than me, evidence of a competitive spirit that would surprise no one who knew him well.
After the bakery was up and running successfully, John decided to go back to construction, a job he both hated and loved. He retired for good from construction in 2019 and was looking forward to spending more time with family, buying a camper and doing some traveling.
After he was diagnosed with cancer last fall, I asked him if he intended to put those plans on hold, and he said definitely not. He was a fighter, and even though he worried about the risks of cancer and treatment, he didn’t let it show.
I could go on, recounting details of our times together that included fishing, skinny dipping, camping, hot-rodding, double-dating, all night partying, and so on. He had a theory for just about everything that could go wrong, in the bakery or otherwise, and we had constructive arguments as well as bitter disagreements at times.
In the end what I will miss the most is his helpfulness. When things went wrong, you could always count on John to drop whatever he was doing and lend a hand, offer sound advice, or give moral support.
His heart was as big as they come. While I miss John dearly, I’ll always remember the countless ways he made his presence felt in a positive way in my life and the lives of those around him. He did his best to make the world a better place, and I strive to follow his lead. God rest, Big John.