Bruce Bidwell, longtime Manhattan Optimist Club member and co-chair of the Optimist Tree Lot, stands in front of “Santa’s Workshop” in early December. Bidwell has been a Manhattan resident for over 50 years, 45 of which were spent working at the McCall Pattern Company.

In his own words, Bruce Bidwell thinks he is a “pretty boring person.”

“I don’t like to be in the forefront, I’d rather be back behind the scenes,” Bidwell said. “Do I enjoy people? Yes. Would I want to be a politician? No.”

Bidwell is not a politician, but rather a member of the Manhattan Optimist Club for more than 20 years. He has helped operate the club’s Optimist Park in Manhattan at 317 Plymate Lane off Amherst Avenue. Bidwell, along with fellow co-chairs Jim Franke and Steve Boeckman, have organized many local fundraisers over the years, including the club’s annual spaghetti dinner and the Christmas tree lot at the park. Bidwell said the club also handles concessions during wrestling tournaments at Manhattan High School during non-pandemic times.

“We help to support anywhere between 25 and 30 youth-oriented activities,” Bidwell said.

The Optimist Club currently has an essay contest taking place in conjunction with Optimist International, and the club also has a monthly youth program where three students from each local elementary school would be chosen by their teachers to appear at the club’s morning breakfast meetings and visit with club members.

Bidwell said the Little Apple Optimist Club merged with the Flint Hills Optimist Club last fall to reinvigorate membership and carry on some of the club’s events, such as a “chili crawl” in Aggieville and free-throw contests at K-State basketball games.

“We also host T-ball at the park; the city runs that,” Bidwell said. “They play all their games out on one of our fields, and we supply the umpires for games.”

Bidwell also performs grounds maintenance for the softball fields at Optimist Park. Following his retirement five years ago from a 45-year long career as IT director for McCall Pattern Company, he said the park keeps him busy.

“I like to do a little bit of woodworking, but nothing crazy,” Bidwell said. “I spend a lot of time out here at the park, even in winter; there still seems to be things to do.”

Bidwell is not alone at the park. His companion, a 10-year-old white cat named Stretch, is well known among loyal Christmas tree lot customers and softball players. Bidwell said he goes to the park every morning and afternoon to check on and feed Stretch.

“He lives in the garage by the park except when it gets really cold out (10 degrees or less), at which time I bring him home,” Bidwell said. “But he hates to leave the park.”

Bidwell said he is looking forward to warmer weather returning, so he can get ready for spring softball.

“I got an email recently from one of our coaches asking when they can start practicing outside,” Bidwell said. “We’ll probably start that after daylight saving time, depending on the weather.”

Bidwell said at one point the Manhattan Optimist Fast Pitch Association had as many as ten softball teams, and six teams are registered right now. He said the park hosted softball tournaments last year under COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“It was a little bit different, but it worked out well,” Bidwell said.

Originally from Manchester, Connecticut, Bidwell celebrated 50 years of marriage to his wife Patricia last June. He said they met on a blind date while he was living in Emporia, but he does not remember who set them up or where they went on their date. Bidwell said it has worked out well, though, as he has three grown children and six grandchildren.

His brother, a choir leader at a Methodist church in Connecticut, also has been married for a half-century. Bidwell said he follows his brother’s Sunday church services online every week.

“My father, when he was alive, was a good musician, and my brother went to music college,” Bidwell said. “He’s got all the music talent, I have basically none of it.”

Bidwell’s wife is also retired, and he said people often ask him if he misses working.

“For the first six months or so you kind of miss getting up every day and going to work,” Bidwell said. “What I miss most is the people, and that’s the same thing with our Optimist Club members. … If you stick with something for a long time it’s usually because there’s nice people involved.”

Bidwell said he encounters pleasant folk at the park regularly, including one time at the end of a T-ball game several years ago. Bidwell was sifting through the trash cans separating out recyclables from garbage on a hot and humid night in July, when an elderly woman approached him and offered him $10.

“I asked her, ‘What is this for,’ thinking it was a grateful grandma who appreciated the T-ball program,” Bidwell said. “Her reply was, ‘For you.’ Caught off-guard, I replied, ‘For what?’ She said, ‘For food.’”

Bidwell politely declined her offer, and said when he got home, he asked his wife if he “looked that bad.”

“She said yes,” Bidwell said. “I now dress a little better and wait until everyone is gone before I do my ‘rooting.’”

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