Even without meeting him, you can discover all you need to know about a man by talking to his co-workers. When you spoke with the late Mike Fox's co-workers at STIHL, you quickly understand what a gem he was.
Fox was so special that discussion of his sudden death from a heart attack at age 54 on Dec. 30, 2010, continues to bring tears to the eyes of those who worked with him.
STIHL promotional communications manager Roger Phelps had to pause and collect himself before he could speak about that day last December.
"We all felt a lot of grief," Phelps said. "We felt like the world had been deprived of one of the really good guys in life. He was a true man of STIHL"
But, inevitably, smiles outweigh the tears when people are asked about Fox, who worked as a technician at STIHL for 36 years.
"Mike was real low-keyed about things," said Wayne Sutton, a STIHL territory manager who first met Fox 30 years ago. "He got a ton of stuff done without making a big commotion about it. And he was always so pleasant and helpful. He was just a sweet guy."
In memory of a special man, the 2011 STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series was dedicated to Fox. His wife, Ruth, and children, Mika Ann, Samantha and Joe, were brought to the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS U.S. Championships at Salem, Ore., in September to further honor the legacy that Fox left at the company and in the sport.
When the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series started in 1985, it quickly became obvious the stock chainsaw event needed some fine-tuning. As the only one of the six STIHL TIMBERSPORTS disciplines where the competitors are using equipment other than their own, the stock saw competition was sometimes a source of contention.
"These are stock saws, but it's not like you can just take two saws off the shelf at the store," said Rich Hallett, the head judge of the series as part of the Granite State Lumberjack Shows team. "The competitors are elite athletes, and they are good at what they do, so any differences in the wood or the saws could affect the event. The athletes are so close in each discipline. Everything has to be perfect so you can find out who is really the best with the saw.
"In the early years, it was a highly-charged event. Whether it was true or not, the competitors would get wound up and say â€˜saw one' was running faster than â€˜saw two.' It would affect the whole culture of the event if the competitors weren't happy."
Enter Mike Fox to smooth out any differences, among both saws and sawyers. Fox kept detailed notes on each chainsaw used and the competitor who used it. He refined chainsaw testing techniques so that not just RPMs were checked on each saw, but also how they performed "under load."
"He developed a way to time the saws in the wood and find the saws that matched," Hallett said. "And then he worked with the competitors, because he was such a personable guy. If they got wound up about something, he'd be able to respond to their complaints in a way that didn't dismiss them, but at the same time made sure the event was still fair.
"He was really instrumental in keeping a lid on that whole situation in those early years. It's to the point now where the competitors trust the saws. To this day the demo wood that the saws are tested on before the competition is called "Fox-Wood".
Although it tested Granite State's technology to determine a winner, there was nothing Fox liked better than seeing two competition stock saws come out of the wood at almost the exact same time.
Arden "Jamie" Cogar Jr. of West Hamlin, W.Va., was attending lumberjack sporting events with his father long before he became the world class competitor he is today at age 41.
"Mike Fox was a consummate professional," Cogar said. "I first met Mike when I was 15 years old. I hadn't begun to compete on the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series, but I recall Mike diligently working with athletes to understand what it took to make stock sawing events as even as possible.
"It was that willingness to work with the athletes, while understanding the dynamics of how chainsaws run under load, that resulted in the even playing field we have today on the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS Series."
Fox, who lived in Chesapeake, Va., started working for STIHL after graduating from high school. At the time of his death, that ability to solve problems was legendary among the company and its customers.
J.D. Fernstrom, a STIHL Northwest technical service manager, witnessed a chapter in that legend. In 2007, he and Fox attended a tech manager meeting in Virginia Beach, Va., that ended on a Friday, then boarded a plane together Monday en route to Boise, Idaho, where U.S. Forest Service firefighters were having problems with chainsaws used under extreme heat.
"When they were really hot, the chainsaws weren't starting," Fernstrom recalled. "We spent a day-and-a-half cutting in over 100-degree temperatures, trying to duplicate the problems they were having on a fire.
"We both kind of gave up. We refueled the saws and had a drink of water. After about 10 minutes of sitting there, Mike said, 'Let's give it one more try.' Sure enough, he figured it out. He was persistent enough to come up with a solution.
"After that we went out and reworked all the Forest Service chainsaws we could get our hands on and they were happy."
It seems that Mike Fox was famous for that â€“ whether at his job or with friends - always leaving people happy. It's no wonder that while his loss continues to be felt so deeply, his life continues to be celebrated.