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Remembering Sid Ward

Chairman of the (cutting) board

Sid Ward Jr. of Jay poses at his home in July 2018. He died on Aug. 24 at the age of 78. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

JAY — It was time for the chairman of the board — the cutting board, that is — to finally retire.

“Like many things in his life, he went out of this world on his own terms,” Sidney “Jay” Ward III said about his father, 78-year-old Sidney “Sid” Ward Jr., who died at home on Monday, Aug. 24.

After 27 years as a co-owner of Ward Lumber Company, Sid retired in 1997 along with his wife Janet, handing over the reins to their two sons, Jay and Jeffrey, who run the business today. But retirement didn’t fit Sid. He soon became restless.

So Sid helped create the Riverside Thrift Shop at the Whiteface Community United Methodist Church in Wilmington and worked there for 10 years. During that period, Sid began making cutting boards at his home workshop from recycled wood. That led him to another calling, one that would make him a legend of charity and good will in Essex County. For the past 19 years, he made and sold thousands of cutting boards and donated 100% of the proceeds to community groups such as churches, libraries and fire departments. He sold his 10,000th board last year.

“He tried to finish 10 boards a day, every day of the week, seven days of the week,” Jay said. “And there’s lots of stages in making a cutting board, so all of them were moving through stages.”

Sid Ward Jr. of Jay gives a tour of his wood shop in July 2018. He died on Aug. 24 at the age of 78. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

Then he’d sell them. The day before he died, Sid sold cutting boards at the Keene Farmers Market. A lot of cutting boards, between $2,000 and $3,000 worth.

“I want people to know that he was healthy and happy,” Jay said. “He worked hard at the sale on Sunday for the Upper Jay Fire Department. I talked to him that evening. He was really thrilled because he had a great sale. He got up the next morning, and he was taking a nap on the couch and passed in his sleep.”

In what Jay called a “moving tribute” to his father, local firefighters visited Sid and Janet’s house on Glen Road on Wednesday, Aug. 26.

“They closed down the road, and six fire departments lined up their equipment, all the members in uniform standing in formation, at attention, observing a moment of silence to honor Sid,” Jay said on Wednesday, Sept. 2. “That was a week ago, and it’s taken me this long to be able to maintain my composure while explaining that, without losing my composure and becoming a puddle.”

The firefighters came from the Jay, Upper Jay, AuSable Forks, Keene, Keene Valley and Wilmington fire departments.

Sid Ward Jr. of Jay gives a tour of his wood shop in July 2018. He died on Aug. 24 at the age of 78. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

“After the fire department tribute last Wednesday, I said to the funeral director, once I finally composed myself … ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about because there’s no way you’re going to top this tribute. So all pressure is off for the memorial service,'” Jay said.

The final benefactor of Sid’s cutting boards will be North Country Life Flight, which will be selling boards alongside the Ward family from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6 at the Keene Farmers Market on Marcy Field, state Route 73.

“I’m kind of bracing for that,” Jay said. “It’s probably as close as we’ll come to a wake in these COVID times. Not that I’m expecting people to show up to pay respects, but I do expect a lot of people to show up. Like most artists, when they’re gone, their stuff becomes more desirable.”

Jay expects that the cutting boards will sell out on Sunday, something that rarely happened to Sid even on his best days.

“He would actually panic if he sold all his boards because that would mean he’d have to make a whole sale’s worth in a week, which was impossible,” Jay said.

Sid Ward Jr. sits at on the lawn of the Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay on Sept. 20, 2014, selling cutting boards during a walkathon. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Based at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, North Country Life Flight Inc. is a nonprofit air medical rescue service serving northern New York. Flight nurses team up with a New York State Police helicopter and pilot to provide an air ambulance, shuttling seriously ill or injured people to trauma centers where they can get specialized care.

“It is a privilege and an honor to be part of this memorial sale of Sid Ward’s cutting boards,” Mary Jane Connors, president and CEO of North Country Life Flight, said in a press release. “It is fitting that it is taking place on Labor Day weekend, because I don’t think I ever met a harder-working man. Our hearts are broken here at North Country Life Flight with the news of Sid Ward’s passing, but we will rise to the occasion and endeavor to sell a record number of cutting boards in memory of the ‘Chairman of the (Cutting) Boards.'”

Sid’s first sales — 20 cutting boards — were made at the Keene Valley Congregational Church in 2001. By 2015, he was selling more than 1,100 a year. He made boards of all shapes and sizes — traditional rectangles, circles and animal shapes such as moose, mice, fish, cats, pigs and lobsters — from a variety of woods, such as Adirondack ash, cherry, maple, red birch, oak and bird’s-eye maple, plus roasted walnut and Brazilian cherry.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Why don’t you quit doing it?'” Sid told the News in 2018. “I could, but what group do I tell I’m no longer making boards? My local fire department? The church next door? The thrift shop? The Riverside Thrift Store behind the Methodist church sells a board an hour.”

He almost quit making boards in 2016, but a talk with a friend convinced him to keep plugging away.

Sid Ward Jr. of Jay poses at his home in July 2018. He died on Aug. 24 at the age of 78. (News photo — Griffin Kelly)

Enter Sister Yvonne Cusson of the Holy Name Catholic Parish in AuSable Forks. They had a special friendship. For 10 years, he’d give her a check from cutting board proceeds in return for a hug. Before Cusson passed away of ALS in 2016, Sid told her that he may shut down the cutting board business. Unable to speak from the illness, Cusson wrote a message on a whiteboard.

“Please keep coming. We need you.”

“For you, Sister Yvonne,” Sid said, with an arm around her, “I’ll keep going.”

It’s that kind of work ethic Jay learned from his dad. Sid never stopped working and giving back to the community.

“I hope I picked up some community focus,” Jay said. “I have tried to be a huge supporter of volunteer first responders because I think they do such an amazing job and don’t get enough recognition.”

The chairman

Sidney “Sid” John Ward Jr. was born on June 16, 1942, the son of Sidney Ward Sr. and Agnes (Richards) Ward. Graduating from the AuSable Forks High School in 1960, he completed his bachelor’s degree in business administration in three years at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He married Janet Garrecht on June 30, 1962, at the Jay Methodist Church before his final year at Babson.

“I grew up in the middle of the lumber yard over at Ward Lumber,” he told the News in 2018. “When I was young, I used to go over to the mill workshop where they made windows and doors and things, and because my grandfather (Ezra Richards) ran it and three of my uncles worked there most of the time, I became right at home around the equipment.”

Sid and his brother Bill became the third generation to take over Ward Lumber when they joined their mother in 1970. Janet joined the company in 1966, retiring with Sid in December 1997.

Perhaps Sid’s longevity had to do with keeping busy after retirement. Maybe it’s because he spent winters in Florida after working full time on cutting boards in the summer in the Adirondacks. Maybe it’s because he loved life and loved giving back to his community, which grew bigger with each cutting board sale. Or maybe because of all the vices he could have chosen, he only had one.

“We’re fortunate that we can do it,” Sid said about making and selling the cutting boards. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t gamble. I don’t have a drug problem. I don’t have a four-wheeler or a boat. I spend all my time in my shop. I don’t have time for any of those things. My only bad habit is buying lumber.”

A private family memorial service will be held at 10 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 5 at Thwaits-Zaumetzer Funeral Home in AuSable Forks. A livestream will be available for the Labor Day weekend service for family, and friends to participate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The video will be available after the service for on-demand viewing.