MARQUETTE - Looking back, Rich Conrad believes his very life was saved because he was matched with a great man by the Big Brothers program 30 years ago.
Conrad, now 38, grew up in North Lake Location outside of Ishpeming with his twin brother, Mike; his younger brother, Daniel Willis; and his mother, Joann Willis.
"My Mom tried real hard for us, but we had no father figure," Conrad said. "That's why when my Mom found out about Big Brothers she signed us up right away.
Kelly and Rich Conrad pose with their children, from the left, Tripp, 3; Leighton, 1; and Maximus, 6. (Photo courtesy of Rich Conrad)
Dan Foster, left, and Rich Conrad pose at Conrad’s wedding in 2005. Foster and Conrad were matched through the Big Brothers program and have been close friends for 30 years now. (Photo courtesy of Rich Conrad)
In a photo from about 1986, Daniel Conrad, Doug Pennala, Rich Conrad and Mike Conrad pose for the camera in front of some posters from that era. (Photo courtesy of Rich Conrad)
"I remember when we were filling out the forms, she told us to put that we like to do everything because that would get us a match quicker," he said with a chuckle.
So when Dan Foster, the man chosen to be Conrad's Big Brother, talked to the youngster for the first time, there was a bit of confusion.
"Dan said, 'so you like fishing?' and I had to say, 'well, I've never done that.' And then he said 'but you like hunting, right?' and I had to say, 'well, I've never done that, either.' But it was OK with him," Conrad said.
Matched up by the Big Brothers program in 1981, Dan Foster and Rich Conrad have remained close friends through the following 30 years.
When Foster turned 60 in 2008, Conrad wrote a poem for the occasion. This is it:
AND YOU CHOSE ME
I was chosen by you...
So what if I couldn't hunt or fish, my mom told me to check everything on the list.
Through my life's tragedies and triumphs, you have been a constant.
And you chose me...
When I put my little brother in the ground, you cried with me, you gave me your strength.
You have guided me through financial ruin,
Tell Mary I will pay you back soon.
You taught me how to live my life
That family is always first in line, then crush the overtime.
These are the values I take from you
And you chose me...
On the day I was blessed enough to become a father, you were the first person I called.
You made me realize I was ready
That I could actually be a great dad
And you chose me.
Twenty-eight years you have been in my life.
So much respect and admiration I have for you.
And for this I apologize, I am going to steal someone else's line:
"I only hope that I am half the man that you didn't have to be."
Thank you so very much for choosing me....
Happy 60th Birthday!!
I love you
Your little brother Richie
"I was a little hesitant at first," Conrad said. "I was 8 years old and didn't have the stability of a dad. I was ruined for men at that point and really needed something."
Being so young, Rich was confused the first time Foster came to pick him up.
"When he first said he was only taking me and not Mike, we didn't understand. At that point, Mike and I had always done everything together," Conrad said. "But Mike got a Big Brother of his own."
Starved for positive attention from a guy, Rich Conrad took to his new friend right away.
"Right away, Dan was cool," Conrad said. "He did what the program is about. We met for a couple of hours a week. We'd have dinner or go to the show or watch movies at his house. And we do group activities with other Bigs and Littles, like bowling or going to the archery range. It was nice having a man around."
The two spent quite a bit of time together over the course of the next few years. But as Rich got older, he became involved in sports at school, which took up quite a bit of his time. Then in 1989, Foster's job in Ishpeming vanished when the Ropes Gold Mine closed and he wound up moving to Bessemer, in the western Upper Peninsula, and that could have been the end of the relationship.
"But whenever something would come up in my life, there Dan would be," Conrad said. "Dan came to my (high school) graduation party. I'll never forget that."
Right after graduating from Westwood High in 1991, Conrad moved to New York.
"I thought I'd be all right out there, but I knew nothing, really," he said. Rich moved back to the U.P., but couldn't find a job.
"Somehow Dan heard and he called me up. He said he could get me in at the mine in Bessemer," Conrad said. "That's when he helped me to put my life back together. I had left some bills in New York and Dan helped me to clear my credit. He helped me get my first bank account. He helped me get my first driver's license when I was 20.
"He taught me so many things I hadn't been taught before. He and his wife, Mary, were so incredibly good to me."
Foster, an Ishpeming native who now lives in Montana, remembers that time well.
"Rich was so naive about life. He couldn't cook. He couldn't write a check," Foster said. "My wife, Mary, had a lot to do with teaching him those things. We helped him buy his first vehicle."
Then tragedy struck. Conrad's younger brother, Daniel Willis, was killed in a traffic accident on County Road 581 outside of Ishpeming.
"That happened when I lived with the Fosters in Bessemer," Conrad said. "I was 21 and drinking hard. Dan told me I had to stop what I was doing and get my life together."
Conrad did. He worked hard and followed Foster's advice to rebuild his finances. He moved to Minnesota and ended up meeting and marrying his wife, Kelly.
And when Rich was choosing his groomsmen, he knew for sure someone he wanted.
"Dan was in my wedding party. That meant the world to me," Conrad said.
"I stood in his wedding," Foster said. "That was an honor. It's something he didn't have to do, but it meant a lot to me."
When Conrad knew he was going to be a father, he called Foster.
"I asked him how he thought I was going to do and Dan said he knew I would be a good dad," Conrad said. "When Maximus was born, the first call I made was to Dan.
"For each of my kids, Dan has been the first call."
Rich and Kelly now have Maximus, 6; Tripp, 4; and Leighton, 1, and live a busy, happy life in Minnesota. But Big Brother Dan is never far from Rich's mind.
"When I tell people about Dan, I could cry. I know I would probably be dead without him," Conrad said. "I remember the guy working in mining for 40 some years. His work ethic, I tell ya, he passed that on to me. When I do something right, I think 'Dan would be so proud of me.'"
Foster indeed is proud of his Little Brother's accomplishments.
"Rich came from a background of being poor. That's not to criticize his mother. She did her best and she got her sons to Big Brothers in the first place," Foster said. "That's not to say he came from a bad background. He was loved as a kid. But he needed a lot of direction.
"Now, when Rich and I talk on the phone, we always tell each other we love each other," Foster said. "And I do love Rich. He's done so well."
Conrad's wish, in telling this story, is that another youngster's life will be enhanced through the Big Brothers program.
"It's been 30 years now, our friendship," Conrad said. "If we inspire one person to become a Big Brother, then maybe another little boy like myself will get saved. And that would be wonderful."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.