Milestone birthdays often generate their own bucket lists: skydiving, running a marathon, a turn around the race track--whatever convinces the celebrant the event marks a new chapter rather than the end of one. In the months leading up to his 70th birthday, which was on Memorial Day, Donnie Oehler, scion of the Oehler’s Mallard Creek Barbeque dynasty, said he planned to celebrate the same way he celebrated his 60th: standing on his head on a homemade plywood disk (the original skim board) behind his trusty 15-year-old Ski Nautique. “I said I’d do it again when I turned 70, but then realized I’m two days older’n dirt,” Oehler said a few weeks prior to Memorial Day weekend. (Go to charlotteobserver.com/lakenormanmagazine to see how Oehler did.) Anyone who knows Oehler would not be surprised at his unusual birthday celebration plans, or doubt his ability to pull it off. Chemotherapy for lymphoma four years ago didn’t cost him a single hair or, apparently, a millimeter from his bulging biceps.And he’s been skiing for more than half a century. He learned on Mountain Island Lake as a teenager (North Mecklenburg, Class of ’60) behind a cousin’s plywood Yellowjacket boat. “We did everything," he recalls. “Dropping one ski, skiing barefoot, taking off from the shore, tandem skiing, crossing and jumping each other’s ropes.”
The Oehler homesteadSometime around 1961 or ’62, before Duke Power flooded the lake, Oehler purchased a lot on Kemp Road in Mooresville by paying the rental payments on it for two years under a Duke employee’s name. The employee then deeded the lot to Oehler, who was a student at North Carolina State University at the time.He built an outhouse and a shelter, consisting of an uneven concrete pad, six poles and a roof for shade, then plunked a wooden picnic table on it. He figured he had everything a single college guy could ask for. “We was just country boys. We couldn’t afford much,” he says. After Duke flooded and drained the lake the first time, Oehler, assorted cousins and friends, set the piles for a 100-foot pier in the snow using post hole diggers and the debris line as a guide. Those original pilings, nearly 50 years old, are still in place, sturdy as ever, as is the shelter (with a new pad), but the outhouse has been converted to a shower. The trailer he eventually added which served the family as a vacation home for 40 years was replaced by a log cabin about a decade ago. He used salvaged timbers to serve as the cabin’s support beams, along with most of the interior doors. He’s currently working on expanding the cabin’s deck, giving his extended family plenty of room for get-togethers this summer. And that plywood skim board from ten years ago, covered with best wishes from those present for the event, occupies a place of pride over the head of one of his cabin’s stairwells.
The barbecue kingWhile building his cabin, Oehler milled wood for the interior in the same sawmill he used to build Oehler's Mallard Creek Barbeque, which he’s been running for about 20 years. Located in Highland Creek, the sprawling complex consists of a large barn, where Oehler hosts and caters large private functions. Also on site are a softball field, fishing pond, horseshoe pits, pool tables, basketball court, a large stage for bands. Oehler's in the process of adding a wedding chapel. Barbecuing is something that’s in Oehler’s blood. His grandfather, JW, was one of the founders of Mallard Creek Barbecue, an annual event held at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church’s Community House. The event started in 1929, and today it attracts as many as 20,000 people—including prominent political candidates—who gather to enjoy pork, Brunswick stew and cole slaw.Donnie, along with several of his brothers, succeeded both his grandfather and father, and served as chairman of the annual barbecue for more than 20 years before he retired in 2010 to let “some younger boys take over.” Still, he and his wife, Susie, are active members of the church, and often organize youth mission trips.
“I’m satisfied.”Oehler still has and prefers the skis he used as a teenager, but these days he’s mostly content to watch the younger ones show off. His son, Todd, and daughter, Wendy (White), followed in his wake and were good enough to perform with the Lake Norman Ski Club in the 1990s, dazzling spectators with barefoot and pyramid skiing and other feats. Their sons, two each, ages 4 to 9, are now set to take up the mantle. Last summer, three generations of Oehler men skied together for the first time when Todd’s son, Cale, 9, joined his dad and grandfather.Looking down the road to his 80th birthday, Oehler says it’s doubtful he’ll try any water skiing stunts, but he remains excited about the future, and is his happy with his life. “If I leave tomorrow, I won’t have anything to complain about,” he says. “I’ve had a good life. I have a good family. My kids can take care of themselves. How many can say that? I’m satisfied.”