ELIZABETHTOWN — Kevin O’Sullivan is a friendly, talkative fellow. But the path he has traveled during his 60 years — from Fayetteville to the corner of West Broad and North Newton streets in Elizabethtown — has been a rough one.
Until his father’s walking stick helped to smooth it out.
O’Sullivan’s bumpy path actually begins many years before, while working as a corporate restaurant manager. It was during this time that he was battling his own demons — primarily severe alcohol abuse. At some point, O’Sullivan began to notice there would be homeless men who would sit under the trees near his restaurant.
“One day, I decided to dress down and spend some time with them,” O’Sullivan said. “I found out quick that it give you a different perspective when you actually get to know them a little.”
He said that, while mingling among the homeless, he found numerous reasons for their plight. Some, he said, chose to be homeless. Others had no choice because of one tragedy or another — like addictions, loss of jobs, scraps with the law, being shunned by family “and so many other reasons.”
But it wasn’t long before the alcoholism caught up with him. First he lost his job, then his wife reached her limit and hit O’Sullivan with some tough love.
“She simply said she’d had enough and I was going to be committed for help,” he said. “Of course, I said no — but shortly after, two sheriff’s deputies showed up and off I went.”
In hindsight, O’Sullivan said “she was right. I needed help.”
O’Sullivan remained in rehab for 45 days, then spent another two years in the Raleigh area working with the homeless, where he gained a real heart for their plight.
“That’s why I was drawn to the ‘Roger’s Wish’ effort,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t sure if it was real or just something to fill space in the newspaper. But after talking about it, I can see it’s a true cause.”
In late 2011, O’Sullivan’s path became bumpy again. He had reunited with his wife, but despite being sober for the previous six years, he was diagnosed with psoriasis of the liver and a myriad of other liver problems.
“I was so sick then, I was approved quickly for a liver transplant,” he said. “And within six weeks, a match had been found out of Florence, S.C.”
O’Sullivan, who has had no contact with the donor’s family, said the new liver gave him a new lease on life.
“I was so tickled to be alive,” he said. “It woke me up having a part of someone else inside me, and I knew it had straightened me out. Ever since, I have felt that my Creator allowed me to live for whatever reason.”
Sometime after surgery, O’Sullivan’s wife again had to hit him with some tough love.
“I had so much energy and was apparently driving my wife crazy,” he said. “So she finally said she’d had enough and I had to find myself a hobby.”
What he found was his father’s walking stick.
“Dad was from Ireland, and he had this walking stick that I eventually ended up with,” O’Sullivan said. “But it needed some work.”
He said he bought a plastic box cutter for 99 cents along with five double-sided box-cutter blades for $1.59 and went to work. Eventually, he purchased a new metal box-cutter and started cutting sticks.
“I didn’t have any money to get started, so this seemed perfect,” O’Sullivan said. “And there’s always a lot of free sticks in the woods.”
At first, O’Sullivan whittled a few sticks as a kind of therapy. And then he got better at it and he wondered if people might want to purchase his sticks.
“I started with 10 to 15, then figured I better have a bigger inventory,” he said. “So I whittled 25, then my stock grew to 40, then 60 and then 100.”
Today, O’Sullivan has no less than 150 with him. Since starting almost 18 months ago, he estimates that he has whittled more than 800 walking sticks.
“That’s a conservative number, I would say,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s not at all about the sticks — it’s perfect for my health to be out in the fresh air and sunshine. Plus, I really enjoy talking with people.”
O’Sullivan doesn’t actually sell his sticks. Most days he is set up in the former NAPA parking lot at the corner of West Broad and North Newton streets in Elizabethtown, but he has no sign and there are no price tags on his sticks. Instead, he takes only “reserve donations.” He has also donated some of his sticks, which can range from 3 feet to 10 feet in length, to be auctioned for charity.
“I love doing this,” he said. “And it keeps me occupied with the opportunity to meet a lot of people.”
From struggling with alcoholism to mingling with the homeless to undergoing a liver transplant to being led to what he thinks may have been his calling by his father’s walking stick, O’Sullivan has more life experiences than most.
“I’m not sure why, really, but I’m still here,” he said, “and as long as I am, I’ll do anything I can to help another person.”