Time to toast a great birder in Curt Rawn
Curt Rawn never authored a book, worked for a well-known birding tour company, found the rarest birds, or had a podcast or TV show. He simply invited you to join him to go birding or to come to Birds and Beers events.
Rawn, age 69, of Plymouth, Minn., passed away Dec. 26. In addition to being very well known in Minnesota birding circles (and beyond), Curt worked for National Camera Exchange for 24 years, so many people involved in photography in the Twin Cities knew him.
I started Birds and Beers in Minneapolis on July 17, 2007. The intent was to have it once a month, but my travel schedule didn’t always allow for that. The following spring, I was working a bird festival in another state and I noticed pictures showing up on social media for a Birds and Beers… that I hadn’t organized. “What the heck?!” I thought, “Is someone trying to steal my event?”
When I came home and asked friends who attended, they said a guy named Curt Rawn organized it. I vaguely remembered meeting him at the previous Birds and Beers. I contacted him to ask why he organized one.
“I asked you when you would have a Birds and Beers in May, and you said you were too busy,” Curt said, “So I put one on. Those things are fun!”
I laughed at how my little idea to connect birders in bars had gotten beyond my control. I suggested we work together; I definitely needed the help to keep them going when I was out of town. He happily agreed and we experimented with Birds and Beers – the Woodcock Tailgate Party, or Birds and Beers at the Crow Roost. We tried having it at various locations and when we finally got too big, we landed at the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis.
Curt was always happy to help someone else start a new Birds and Beers and was on hand to help launch the St. Paul version. “Hey, Shaz (my nickname), you have got to get to a St. Paul Birds and Beers. I had a blast at the last night!”
Birds and Beers would not be what it is had it not been for Curt. I never wanted to have it on a specific day of the month because some people could do Tuesdays and some people couldn’t do Thursdays. We’d move it around so everyone had a chance to come here and there. Curt did a great job of pinging me every couple of weeks, “Hey, it’s time for another B and B.” He also spread the word like wildfire either at his job at National Camera Exchange in Golden Valley or when out at a rare bird stake-out.
Some of my closest friends are because of Curt. Once I was cornered into a conversation at a Birds and Beers and when I could finally get away, I made a beeline for the bathroom. Curt grabbed me.
The woman next to him laughed as he said, “I wanted to introduce you to this new person to Birds and Beers that I met at the varied thrush last week. Her name is Gayle.”
Gayle laughed and told Curt to let me go about my business. She and I are very close friends to this day.
One of my favorite things at a Birds and Beers is to stand back and watch the crowd, see people connecting and having a good time or interesting conversation. Curt would often catch me doing this and we’d make eye contact, knowingly smile and toast each other. It was one of my favorite parts of our friendship.
Before long Curt started attending bird festivals, and I remember a friend in the Rio Grande Valley asking, “What’s the deal with Curt Rawn? He’s everywhere.” I said, “He loves birding and he really loves people.”
And he did. If you were alone at a party or didn’t know anyone, he’d seek you out, get to know you, and hook you up with other people. He was a super connector. He was at home in any group. When I’d invite him to parties with our theater/comic friends he blended in easily.
When I’d get to a bird festival and he was there, as soon as he saw me, he’d come in for a greeting and say, “Shaz, this is wonderful, I love it! I’ve met so many people!” As I type this, I see him vividly in my head saying that on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh (Ohio) or the trail at Estero Llano Grande State Park (Texas).
The pandemic was hard. Curt was a social creature and derived so much pleasure from the company of others. I had him over in the yard when I could or we’d go birding when time would allow. When I told him my plan for working in the Rio Grande Valley for several weeks last winter he said, “That’s sounds like a great idea, I wonder if I could rent a place down there too?”
Sure enough he found a place a couple of miles away from my rental. He arrived earlier and stayed later than I did, but true to form when I arrived, “You know Katinka?”
“I met her briefly at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival a few years ago,” I said.
“Well, she’s here too and needs company. We should all go birding,” Curt said.
And I got to know Katinka much better as a result.
Little things like finding him under my apartment balcony after I recorded parakeets in eBird morning meant the world to me. We had a really great month. While birding one morning he marveled at how he dropped five pounds out of nowhere. He thought it must have been all the walking and birding in Texas as opposed to being cooped up indoors in frozen Minnesota. Little did any of us know what was really going on.
He got vaccinated while he was in Texas and immediately started asking me how soon we’d have Birds and Beers. I was nowhere near getting vaccinated and not ready. He managed to get a few in without me.
When I came back from working in Alaska this summer, Curt had a cough but thought it was due to the heavy haze in the Twin Cities from the wildfires in surrounding states and Canada. When it didn’t go away after the smoke subsided, he got the cancer diagnosis. He was quiet about it at first. But as things progressed, I had him over and said, “You have to let people help you. We want to help you. Think of all the times you drove someone to chemo, you brought them food, you made them smile, you simply visited. It’s time to let us return the favor.”
There are a thousand stories I could tell you about the man. Like back when I was married and my husband at the time was in Hong Kong and I had a back spasm and was immobile. He was out birding with his friend Tony but they stopped and grabbed some food and made sure I had things to eat the next few days. I’ll never forget that kindness.
He could drive me nuts when we travelled together. We’d be scheduled to meet at certain time for breakfast and birding and he’d call when we were supposed to hit the road and say, “Hey Shaz, I met five new people at a party last night and they want to bird with us, too, and I’ll need another 45 minutes to figure out carpooling.”
One of my all-time favorite photos of Curt was taken by Craig Mullenbach. Curt and I were working the Minnesota Ornithologists Union booth at the Minnesota State Fair. The booth has a giant sign that reads, “Ask Us About Birds!” Craig and other friends arrived at the booth and gifted us Big Fat Bacon on a stick. Craig was about to take a photo of us at the booth, when a member of the public noted the sign and asked, “Hey is it true that when you see a cardinal in your yard that it’s one of your dead relatives stopping by to say hello?”
Our faces in that photo, which you can see here, are PRICELESS. Curt and I laughed about that moment for years and how caught off guard we were.
Will I see Curt in a cardinal in my backyard? No. I’m about to move to Alaska where there are no cardinals, so no dead loved ones will visit me there.
I’ll see Curt when I am with a gathering of birders and people are engaged in good conversation, sharing an amazing life bird story, eating lifer pie, and welcoming in a new birder to the group.
I’m grateful for the friendship we had. I’m grateful that two weeks ago I went to visit him with my best soup, and he taught me to play cribbage. He was happy that day, tired but happy. He was optimistic about his treatment and plans for 2022. But then things changed terribly fast, and I have a hole in my heart now. It’s much bigger than I expected it would be.
So long, Curt, and thank you for the years of friendship and the many friends you introduced me to along the way.