Colleagues build tribute to friend who suffered
fatal heart attack
In 2003, Mark Witter, a seasoned timber framer, began biking to work.
By all accounts, Mark was a guy who enjoyed life. He liked his job and the slow and steady bike ride to his job at the Cascade Joinery in Fairhaven.
But on June 16, 2004, Mark arrived at the joinery, rested his bike against the building and had a massive heart attack, cutting his life short at the age of 50.
Immediately following Mark’s death, Jeff Arvin, co-owner of Cascade Joinery, said there was a feeling of shock and disbelief around the joinery.
“You’re numb immediately,” Arvin said. “The hardest part was his huge absence in the weeks and months following. I know that for more than a year I would catch myself thinking, ‘I need to go talk to Mark about that.’ But then you realize he’s gone and not here anymore.”
Mark was a musician, a family man, a great friend and a devoted community member. His passions included his family, friends, baseball, the blues, and timber framing, which has historic ties to community improvement.
His spirit has inspired his friends and co-workers at Cascade Joinery, which will break ground in August on The Porch at Boulevard Park. The Porch is a privately funded, outdoor music pavilion inspired by Mark’s life and his passions for music and timber framing.
Timber framers have history of community building
Jeff Arvin, co-owner of the Cascade Joinery, said timber framing is an age-old craft and historically house carpenters and barn builders were critical to a community. These skilled craftsmen would come together with the rest of the town to assemble and raise buildings for the common good.
“There has been a tradition in North America, as little known as it may be, of timber framers doing public work,” Arvin said.
Arvin said there has always been a plan for some type of outdoor performance structure in Boulevard Park, but it was never pursued due to a lack of funding.
“It would remain unfunded for years until all the stars aligned for this project,” Arvin said.
Arvin said Cascade Joinery doesn’t get to do much public work and he felt this would be an excellent opportunity to give back to the community in the historic tradition of timber framing.
“For us, it was a natural thing to look for an opportunity to donate something to the city that everybody could use,” Arvin said.
The Life of Mark Witter
Mark Witter was more than an employee at the Cascade Joinery.
“I really considered him a colleague and almost a partner,” Arvin said.
Arvin had known Mark for 20 years; first through the national Timber Framers Guild and then after Witter moved to Bellingham from New York state and the two worked together for another 10 years.
“He was a guy who, in his own way, really enjoyed life,” Arvin said.
Susan Witter, Mark’s wife, said that they were pretty young when they met while they were both attending State University of New York at Oswego and married soon after. They have two children: Rachel, 23, and Brian, 18.
“One thing I realized was a lot of who he was came from me and a lot of who I am came from him,” Susan said.
She said Mark was the kind of guy who was well spoken and had well-thought-out opinions.
“I always thought of him as a rock. He knew who he was and what he stood for,” she said. “He often disagreed with my viewpoints but was always willing to listen. He appreciated me.”
The couple moved to Bellingham and after the birth of their daughter, they moved back East to be around parents, but found the people less inviting.
“One thing we were really shocked by when we returned, was how closed people were,” Witter said. “I mean the people that you would meet were very private and wouldn’t let you in or even give you a chance.”
The young family moved back to Bellingham and Susan said once they gave Bellingham some time, they found friends they could count on.
“Once he plugged in, he was always working on a bathroom or maybe someone was putting on an addition and he would be helping there or it was something else that they needed done,” Susan said. “He was always pitching in.”
As much as Mark cared about his friends and family, he was equally passionate about music, Arvin said. He played harmonica in a local blues band, loved hanging out at the Wild Buffalo and produced a few shows for the Pacific Northwest Jazz Alliance.
“He was not only a musician but he could tell you who played the bass line for Black Sabbath on a recording from 1970,” Arvin said. “He was a human encyclopedia with his knowledge of music.”
Susan said she thinks Mark liked the community aspect of music.
“If you are playing, you are usually playing with a bunch of people. Then there are people playing, singing, dancing and listening,” she said. “So there are a lot of levels.”
There have also been a lot of levels of contribution to push The Porch project forward, but Leslie Bryson, design and development manager for the Bellingham Parks & Recreation Department, said community-driven projects like The Porch are not uncommon.
Building The Porch
Bryson said the parks department likes collaborative projects that make use of something currently unused or significantly improves the park space.
“We wouldn’t want to put in a disc-golf course at a dog park because people use the dog park and that would be taking away,” Bryson said.
Bryson said Cascade Joinery originally came with a desire to replace the gazebo in Elizabeth Park and build The Porch there, a place where Mark played his music and spent time with his family. However, Bryson said the gazebo was well-loved by the neighborhood.
“It is not a great performance space but it has this historic value in the neighborhood,” Bryson said.
Bryson suggested Boulevard because the parks department had always planned to have a performance space and the summer concert series was using a temporary stage that had to be set up and taken down at every show.
“So [The Porch] would serve a dual purpose,” Bryson said.
Once they settled on Boulevard Park as the location, Arvin said that everyone involved worked together to make it possible.
The joinery got the blessing from the Bellingham Arts Commission, City Council, the parks department and the parks advisory board.
“The city has been very helpful and very receptive to the idea,” Arvin said.
The Porch is a gift to the community and to get the ball rolling, Cascade Joinery needed to raise some money.
The overall cost of the project is estimated at $181,000. To date, Cascade Joinery has raised approximately $85,000 in cash and in-kind donations. The balance reflects Cascade Joinery’s donation, which includes the timber frame and design and general contracting costs.
Arvin said the Bellingham community contributed $25,000 and the Timber Framers Guild, including members within the guild, has donated more than $20,000. He said Cascade Joinery’s clients and vendors have kicked in another $20,000 and close to $24,000 in in-kind donations.
“It has been largely small donations,” Arvin said. “We’ve had a couple of pretty large donations but most of them have been $500 and less.”
Arvin said it has been pretty easy drumming up financial support for such a project.
“Some people contribute because they knew Mark and a lot of other people just think this project is the right fit for Boulevard Park,” Arvin said.
Susan said she thinks Mark would be happy with Arvin’s decision to keep Mark as the inspiration and not the namesake.
“It’s not going to say on it: Mark Witter Memorial Pavilion,” Susan said. “And I think he would really like that.”
Susan also said she thinks Mark would be excited about having The Porch in Boulevard Park.
“I think he would like the fact that it’s going to be there for people to perform at whatever level; even if it’s a big sister performing for her little sister,” Susan said. “I think he’ll really like the fact that it’s there in some way because of him."