Oak Creek native makes the most of each day | SteamboatToday.com

Oak Creek native makes the most of each day

— Mike Yurich was about 54 years old when he found himself in something of a funk.

“I was frustrated and had a lot of bad moments,” he said, recalling his depression and the day he decided to make a change.

He had been working the night shift at Safeway and came home feeling especially down. He lay on the couch, his head in his hands, pleading with God for direction – just as a commercial for the Peace Corps came on the TV.

Yurich saw it as a sign. He’d always wanted to volunteer but until then – divorced and his children grown – it hadn’t been the right time.

“My heart is here in Oak Creek, and it was hard to think about making the change,” said Yurich, an Oak Creek native. “But when the opportunity came for the Peace Corps, I took it and had a lot of good adventures with it.”

Yurich volunteered with the organization for 15 years, teaching English to children in mostly remote and poor areas of Africa, the Philippines and Armenia.

Now 72, Yurich has come full circle. He is retired from the Peace Corps and living back in Oak Creek, where he indulges his lifelong passion for local history as a collector, archivist and researcher with the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg.

Yurich may be a world away from the simple yet rich life he had in the Peace Corps. However, those experiences have influenced a fulfilling lifestyle back home, geared toward keeping his mind and body healthy with projects and routines.

On any given day, Yurich is seen walking – everywhere. In the Peace Corps, he requested placement in rural areas so he would do a lot of walking to keep in shape.

Although he has a driver’s license back home, he doesn’t drive because he’s not comfortable in traffic, and the logistics and expense of owning a car just clutters his mind, he said.

Yurich lives downtown at the Aspen View apartments, which are within walking distance to most places he wants to go. He also takes advantage of van transportation provided by the Routt County Council on Aging for occasional trips to Steamboat Springs.

One of his favorite walks is to the cemetery – a good place to research local history, he said.

“I have a lot of friends up there,” Yurich said, noting projects that started there, including his research of various ethnic groups in the area. The project was inspired by the many Japanese headstones he found in the cemetery – reminders of the diverse workers who toiled on the railroad and in the coal mines.

To keep things interesting, Yurich also walks to Phippsburg on Thursdays to peruse the thrift store, where he usually finds something to add to his many collections.

His collections include things he can’t throw away such as cardboard boxes and bottle caps, which were invaluable teaching tools in the poor areas where he taught in the Peace Corps.

He may no longer configure display boards and board games, but Yurich has a hard time conforming to America’s throw-away mentality.

“That’s just our society, but it’s hard for me to gear toward that,” he said.

Yurich’s penchant for collecting started in the fifth grade, when he began gathering old photos and newspaper articles about the Oak Creek and Phippsburg areas.

He stored his large collection at the Oak Creek Public Library while he served in the Army and later during his stints in the Peace Corps. He continued adding items and researching local history in between Peace Corps placements.

In 1998, a group of women used his collection to start the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg, housed in an upstairs office overlooking Oak Creek’s Main Street.

Surrounded by notebooks filled with local lore, Yurich marveled at his “thousands” of projects, which include organizing events celebrating Oak Creek’s centennial this year, arranging a “Railroad Wall” in Phippsburg honoring railroad workers and preparing for the opening of a museum in Oak Creek’s old city hall.

“I’ve slowed down a lot physically, so I want to keep my mind active,” he said.

That means not just keeping busy but accomplishing even the simplest of tasks in a way that makes his day more meaningful. He even spreads his errands throughout the week so he has more time to visit with people in the places he frequents.

It’s a habit he learned in the Peace Corps, where purchasing provisions was as much about creating a rapport with townsfolk and practicing new languages as it was about gathering supplies.

Yurich’s four children live out of the area and occasionally visit, but he also revels in the peace and serenity of being alone. He enjoys making occasions of certain days – bringing out the special china for tea on Sundays or putting up a Christmas tree and decorating his apartment for the holidays.

“Even by myself I did all that, and I enjoyed it,” said Yurich, who instead of sending gifts wrote Christmas letters to family and friends recalling a special memory or experience he had with each person.

Preserving memories is important to Yurich, who gave up New Year’s resolutions two years ago and instead vowed to write one page each week about an experience in his life.

“I’m trying to get other people to do the same,” he said, holding three notebooks he’s filled with his writings.

People’s memories can be especially valuable to local historical societies, said Yurich, who has created Oak Creek Memory Books from written recollections he received from locals.

Amidst all his projects and activities, Yurich has a safety net to make sure he never again falls into funk. It’s called the “five-day rule,” and he marks his calendar each time he has a bad day.

“If I have five bad days in a row, I’m leaving,” he said.

That almost happened while he was volunteering in Lesotho, Africa. He’d had a particularly difficult week and, after noting the fifth bad day on his calendar, he packed his bags for home.

It was raining as he sat packed on a bus with people and animals, the vehicle trudging up a muddy mountain road.

When the bus reached the top of the mountain, the rain had stopped and the sun shone through a break in the clouds onto five beautiful sunflowers. Yurich suddenly saw the brightness in his situation and turned back.

“It doesn’t take much to make a bad day into a good day,” he said.

– To reach Tamera Manzanares,

e-mail tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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