Obituary: Will Raap, 1949-2022 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Will Raap, 1949-2022 

Founder of Gardener's Supply and the Intervale Center was an idealistic capitalist and steward of land and people

Published December 19, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Will Raap - COURTESY
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  • Will Raap

Will Raap, community visionary and iconic entrepreneurial activist, loving husband, father and friend, died unexpectedly on December 12, 2022, at the age of 73.

He accomplished so much and set in motion so much still to be done.

How to describe Will? His intelligence, his humor, his practicality, his grace, his ease. His deep love of the natural world. His lack of emphasis on his “legacy,” his total lack of pretense. The words pile up. But mostly his deep belief in and respect for the worth of every person, a belief in the power of an individual to make a difference and for the power of the collective to change the world. Will lived this, as comfortable packing boxes and pulling weeds and sweeping up pigeon poop alongside his family and coworkers as he was speaking at conferences and petitioning politicians to get on board and make something happen.

Will redefined and modeled what it was to be a leader in our society, or should be. Yes, he was driven, highly charismatic and highly competitive, and he held high expectations. But this was rooted in collaboration, emotional openness, compassion and empathy. A generous mentor to so many, Will believed in you.

A native Californian, Will lived much of his life as a dedicated Vermonter and always as a global citizen. He completed his education at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, and what he subsequently experienced working in planning in the Central Valley very much shaped his life’s mission. Seeing the effect of large-scale agriculture and the patent idiocy of compromising our environment to ship a hard, tasteless tomato across the country or around the world, Will envisioned a future rooted in local business and local agriculture.

He did not find fulfillment in a “traditional” career path, so he headed to Scotland to join the Findhorn intentional community, based in spirituality, ecology and cooperative operation. This was a marked experience in Will’s life, learning to run things and seeing the power of collective action.

It was there he also met his wife, Lynette, who would be his guide, his coconspirator, and his life and spiritual partner for the next 45 years.

Upon returning to the United States, Will and Lynette landed on the East Coast, where Will joined Lyman Wood at Garden Way, a business founded to promote a living-off-the-land ethos. Lyman had a vision for a different kind of business, one that made a positive difference for society, and one of management through collaboration and shared ownership. Unfortunately, an internal coup led to extensive downsizing.

At the time, Will was working at a division called Gardens for All, which promoted home gardening and published National Gardening magazine. Forced to figure out a means to better monetize their readership, Will began selling products through the pages of the magazine. Will would subsequently spin this activity off into an independent catalog business, and in 1983 Gardener’s Supply was born.

This was a time when specialty cataloging was young, and despite some early business near-death experiences, that rising tide lifted all boats — including Gardener’s Supply.

Gardener’s Supply was not founded as a way to merely sell stuff through catalogs. It was founded out of Will’s belief that business should be the strongest force for good in our society — and that, through Gardener’s Supply, the team could improve the world through gardening. The concept of socially responsible business hardly existed; as would often be repeated, his vision was ahead of his time.

Will sought a new form of business organization, one that not only rewarded the financial capital invested but also the labor and contributions of all employees who were creating enterprise value. Rooted in his deep respect for the contribution of every employee, only four years after founding Gardener’s Supply Will steered the company toward employee ownership through the early adoption of an ESOP — an employee stock ownership plan. Although the business grew in value and Will could have sold it for a premium, he stayed committed to keeping the business in the Vermont community. He would eventually sell the entire company to the employees; Gardener’s Supply became 100 percent employee owned in 2009. Gardener’s Supply has grown to more than $100 million in annual sales and 300 year-round employees.

It was one afternoon in the early '80s, when retrieving his stolen and abandoned car, that Will became acquainted with the Intervale, which was literally “the wrong side of the tracks.”

It was there that Will saw the unrealized agricultural potential of the fertile soils. The Intervale was home to the last dairy farm in Burlington, acres of cow corn, abandoned tires and petty crime. In the belief that a good use would chase out the bad, Will moved Gardener’s Supply there in 1986.

He promptly formed Intervale Farm and Garden, which would become the nonprofit Intervale Center, with the mission of incubating new farms and new farmers, reimagining post-dairy Vermont agriculture, and locally growing 10 percent of Burlington’s fresh produce.

Today the Intervale Center is reinventing agriculture across the country.

Will’s passion for starting things would never relent. He went on to form many other businesses, ranging from commercial greenhouse sales to wood products manufacturing (Serac Corporation in Georgia, Vt.) to ecological wastewater treatment and many more — some successful, others not. When he left the day-to-day management of Gardener’s Supply, he collaborated with his kids to start the highly successful Green State Gardener and Upstate Elevator Supply Co., and just recently to assemble a team to launch Steep Hill Labs, a leading Vermont cannabis testing facility.

At the age of 72, he undertook his greatest challenge, acquiring the former Nordic Farm in Charlotte to embrace a dynamic ecosystem of agricultural startups, a living demonstration project for a reenvisioned future of specialty agriculture in Vermont. Renamed Earthkeep Farmcommon, that vision lives on.

Will’s impact reached far beyond Vermont and the U.S. He and Lynette had deep ties to Costa Rica, and there Will replicated similar for-profit and nonprofit initiatives to support ecological entrepreneurship. He brought the same ethos to business partnerships around the world, building ties and socially responsible sourcing throughout Europe, India and Asia.

In Costa Rica, Will was also at his most relaxed, he and Lynette generously hosting and sharing with others the beauty and wonder of that country.

Yes, Will grew ideas and businesses, but he also grew people. Foremost are his creative and caring children, Dylan, Kelsy and Addison, independent souls all, the true expression of the practicality, persistence and spirit of Will and Lynette.

Will would also be a true and lifelong mentor to many others. A charismatic leader, he believed in the potential embodied in everyone. Will was generous with his time and unsparing with his opinions, and he modeled confidence without pretense, wrapped in modesty. He was a model of “servant leadership,” never asking of anyone something he would not do himself. He related to his staff as he would his friends, one-to-one, with compassion and empathy.

Will’s confidence was coupled with his selflessness; he would see an issue and develop a working model that others could follow — enabling the good work to spread. And it has.

That only works with courage and persistence. Will had a “Why not?” attitude to taking risks. The more you told Will, “You can’t,” the more determined he was to prove that “You can.” This did not always serve him best; he sometimes held on to ideas, businesses and even relationships too long. But out of every setback came learning and a new path to a better outcome.

His family feels immeasurable gratitude for the profound love he showed them — and the love he taught them to cultivate as concern for the welfare of others: that every problem has a win-win solution and how to dedicate themselves to improving conditions for our shared home, planet Earth. While his absence feels unbearable, they are grateful for the outpouring of support and know that his impact is enduring.

So long as we remember him, he will live in spirit in all who were lucky enough to have been touched by his presence.

In addition to his wife and children, Will is survived by two adoring sisters, Linda Kramer of Lafayette, Calif., and Sherrie Crumpler of Malibu, Calif.

A celebration of life will be planned for Earth Day, Will’s favorite holiday; details to follow.

In lieu of flowers or gifts and to further Will’s work, please make a contribution to the Raap Family Fund at the Vermont Community Foundation online at vermontcf.org/raapfamilyfund. Checks can be mailed to 3 Court St., Middlebury, VT 05456.
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