-from Kristen Kubisiak, Catholic Herald staff
For Bernard “BJ” Bythell, there is nothing inherently special about March 1. It’s not a holiday, a birthday, or any other festive occasion. All the same, on March 1 he discovered a large, yellow greeting card-sized envelope in his mailbox.Settled into a recliner in his apartment at Milwaukee Catholic Home, a continuing care retirement community, he held up
the card as if it was evidence. “This is what I am talking about,” he said.
Bythell has experienced a lot in his life. He was married for 68 years (his wife Kathryn died in 2014) and he is a father, grandfather and great-grandfather– multiple times over; he served the country as a World War II Army veteran; and he spent decades working as a buyer for grocery and hardware stores.
But this January, something happened that he couldn’t explain. Intermingled with the perfunctory bills and glossy advertisements he had come to expect in his daily mail were brightly colored envelopes. The first one showed up on January 5, and they haven’t stopped coming since.
“Birthday cards,” Bythell said. At first he thought it might be a joke; his birthday isn’t until April 13.
But the baffling phenomenon showed no sign of slowing, and, in fact, has gone digital.
“I started getting emails, Facebook messages, phone calls,” he said.
Bythell began to suspect this was a coordinated effort. But he had no idea how or why. Then someone let the cat out of the bag.
“Last fall, I was just working on my calendar for 2019 and I realized Dad’s 99th birthday was coming up,” said Barbara Bythell, BJ’s fourth and youngest daughter. “I was trying to think of a special way to honor him then it just kind of came to me.”
Barbara ran the idea by her siblings, Jean, Carol, Diane and Bob. Then she reached out to other family members and friends, Catholic Home employees, neighbors – anyone she could think of who knew her father and had been touched by his life in some way – and asked them if they would like to send him a message on one of the 99 days leading up to his 99th birthday. The response was overwhelming.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” BJ Bythell said, but he noted he enjoys reading the cards. A couple in particular make his eyes light up.
“I really like this one,” he said. The card he identifies-which has a bottle of liquor and a glass containing what appears to be a cocktail – is one of more than a dozen displayed on his walls, along with framed photos of family and friends. “It says, “Like a fine Scotch, you get better with age.”
Another favorite is a musical popup card with a 3D dog in the middle. On his Facebook page, he has a video of two of his great-grandchildren who live in Illinois, Lulu and Freddie, sitting at a table singing happy birthday. All of his children live out of state, with the exception of Barbara, who resides in Riverwest – so many of his cards have postmarks from locations across the country. The card that traveled the farthest distance to reach him – so far –was from Seattle. The nearest traveling card came from his next-door neighbor.
“It’s been a great couple of months,” BJ said, though he maintains he’s not worth all the fuss.
Barbara hinted a few more surprises may be on the horizon for her father. In the meantime, what she has dubbed, “The 99 Days of BJ” is in full-effect.
On behalf of the Catholic Herald, happy birthday BJ.