BOISE – Roger Kuhse grew up in northeast Iowa, the second-oldest of 16 children. He had eight brothers and seven sisters.
His dad was a carpenter, his mother a homemaker who could stretch a dollar a long way. The family was poor, but he never went to bed hungry.
“We had everything we needed to live,” he said. “But I couldn’t do sports at school. We didn’t have tennis shoes. When we had gym class, we were in our stocking feet.”
The Boise County resident doesn’t dwell on what he didn’t have growing up. In fact, he draws strength from it.
Kuhse has quietly made it his mission to make sure that Idaho City kids whose families are short on cash don’t go without.
Over the past five years, Kuhse has donated about $12,000 in cash to Idaho City schools, according to Basin School District Superintendent John McFarlane.
“The benevolence fund is almost exclusively him in the past couple years,” McFarlane said.
In donating the money, Kuhse’s only request is that some of it be used to buy library books. It has been used for a variety of student needs, including shoes, clothes, activity fees and medical bills.
Kuhse, a carpenter and handyman who does repairs primarily on rentals in the Valley, works diligently year-round for the extra cash he donates to the school district. He does it by collecting aluminum soda pop cans – an enormous number of cans. This year, he collected about 3 tons.
“When I grew up, that’s how we got our spending money,” he said, noting that he didn’t see anyone else collecting cans in Boise County. “We collected cans and pop bottles. Back then, you could get a candy bar for a nickel.”
The mountain of cans behind his Clear Creek home grows all year. At the end of the summer, just before school starts, he hauls the cans to Western Recycling in Boise.
“I have a trailer that is 16 feet long, 6 feet high and 7 feet wide,” Kuhse said. “I hauled about five and a half loads of that thing to town.”
Where do all those cans come from? Wherever Kuhse can find them.
He put out collection bins in turnouts and well-traveled areas around Boise County and in Ada County, at Hilltop Station. But that’s not all. He collects cans at Les Bois Park during horse racing season and at big events such as the Boise Music Festival.
Austin Lane, a 17-year-old Idaho City High senior who lives near Kuhse, helped collect cans at the festival.
“I was there four or five hours. Roger was there all day. It was so hot,” said Lane, who calls Kuhse and his wife, Linda, his “adopted grandparents.”
Because so many people toss recyclable cans into the trash, Kuhse puts on plastic gloves and goes after them – with an obsessiveness that landed him in the hospital with dehydration a couple years ago.
One man who saw Kuhse digging through the garbage at the racetrack told him to “get a job.”
“Roger told him, ‘When you’re digging cans out of the trash for your neighbors’ kids, then you can judge me,’ ” Lane said.
Now Kuhse wears a “Cans for Kids” shirt when he’s out looking for cans. That’s reduced the negative comments and helped spread the word about his mission.
Those who know Kuhse well say he comes off to many as grouchy or unapproachable.
“He’s not as crotchety as they say,” said his wife, Linda, 64, who fixes snowblowers, chain saws, lawnmowers and other items at a small-engine repair shop at their Clear Creek home about 15 miles southwest of Idaho City. “He’s so sweet.”
Linda first met her future husband in 1977 at his brother’s house in Boise. She liked him right away: They’re both outdoorsy people who love camping and fishing.
“He’s my everything,” she said. “We’re going on 35 years.”
Sarah Weller, a math teacher, is one of Roger Kuhse’s admirers.
But it took time.
“I was afraid to talk to him,” she said. “He acts gruff. He doesn’t talk much.”
He doesn’t have time for small talk, said Connie Hamilton, a kindergarten teacher.
“He likes his space. He likes to be left alone,” Lane said.
His actions speak volumes.
Last year, Kuhse held a raffle at the high school. Kids got tickets for each bag of cans they brought in. Then bicycles, backpacks and other items were raffled off. A pair of sisters who brought in about 40 bags didn’t win anything.
“I cheated and gave them a $50 gift certificate for a restaurant in town,” Kuhse said. “They put their hearts into it and got nothing out of it.”
Kuhse has no plans to quit, though he would welcome help from anyone who passes his Boise County bins.
He’s hoping that the effort is carried on, but he’s not sure who will do it.
“I’ll do it until I fall over, I guess,” Kuhse said.