Glory be to the Grandfather

My paternal grandfather, Bernard Kennedy, raised things. Crops. Votes. Kids.

Dairy farmer, Town Chairman, Father of eleven.

Bernard worked and then took over the reins of the farm where he was raised and reigned over his 250+ acre dirt empire with admirable attention and affection. The farm buildings were straight and clean, the yard well kept, and animals well-fed.

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Despite back-bending, hard labor work his entire life, he carried himself with a regal dignity. Shoulders back, chest out, and eyes smiling.

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Bernard respected himself, his wife, Louise, his family, his church, his community, his work, and anyone he met.

He was comfortable and familiar with a tough day’s work. As if the upkeep and production of his dairy farm and large family wasn’t enough to cripple a healthy man, Bernard held two jobs outside of farming, parts at Carl F. Statz machinery, and odd jobs handyman to locals in the area. Later in life, he was a top repairman for his son David’s TV and appliance store, Kennedy-Hahn. Somehow he found the time to play on Waunakee’s Home Talent baseball team for many years and was very proud of the several championships he was a part of.

Bernard’s hands were gnarled like the roots of a tree as a result of handling the metals, machinery and tools of his trades. Getting a close look at his hands resting on the table one day, I asked him what was wrong with them. He shrugged his shoulders, “Oh. It happens when you get old.” No complaining, no flaunting, just straight forward, matter-of-fact responses.

Undaunted by his overloaded obligations, Bernard maintained a positive outlook on life. He often whistled and sang in his Irish tenor while he worked. The same on tune performances he would give in church on Sunday. An Irish Catholic who faithfully attended service every Sunday, sitting towards the front, in the characteristic persistence of his work and family life.

On his old, sore knees, he’d still humbly kneel down before the God he believed in.

Grandma and he said the rosary every night and on road trips.  As a young teen, I road along with them once to Cincinnati to see a play their son and my uncle Paul was performing in.  In the front seat, my grandparents would trade off between Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory be to the Fathers. I would mumble along at times but mainly, just wishing for the decades of the rosary to be finished and for the radio to be turned on.  Though I admit to a sense of security I felt knowing that if we did get in an accident, God couldn’t help but put us on the express lane to Heaven.

Grandpa was 100 percent Irish and advertised it often. Always celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day by wearing his wool Irish cap.  Green was his favorite color. He painted his home accordingly and I’m hard-pressed to remember him in any clothing other than his green work uniform. The only fight I ever heard him getting in, outside of the sparing he did with his brothers, was when some loudmouth at the shop made a derogatory comment about the Irish, on St. Patrick’s Day to boot. Bernard had to put the man in his place–which happened to be pressed hard against a machine.

Should any of his seven sons scrap in his presence, he would intervene, “If you have that much extra energy, I have plenty of chores for you.” A peace accord soon followed.

Tough but fair, elected as the town chairman of Westport for over 27 years, Bernard Kennedy served his elected office with the same pride he took in his land and in his family.

When a resident called to complain at 11PM, he took the call and listened while my grandmother shook her head and wondered why someone would call the house so late. When his good friend on the board spoke out of turn, Grandpa stepped in to tell him to wait his turn and let the others be heard. When a substantial snowfall would blanket the area, Bernard instructed the truck drivers to plow his street last, after the rest of the community was taken care of, sometimes, he’d even helm the plows to help get the job done.  A shining example of what a “public servant” should be. I wish every politician would follow his example. In fact, the worst insult he would say about a cohort was with a disappointed head shake, “He’s…he’s a politician.”

The town’s administration building was erected some years ago and named after him. Deservedly so.

Often in my youth upon telling a local my name, the common response would be something like, “Kennedy? Related to Bernard?” Yes, he’s my grandpa. “Oh, known him for years. Your grandpa’s a good man. Salt o’ the Earth.”

With 22 aunts and uncles, thirty six other grandchildren, I found it impossible to get one on one time with my grandpa.  On a recent search, I couldn’t find any pictures of just he and I. Probably true for most of us grandchildren…and his children, for that matter. But, nevertheless, his influence was far and wide.  He and I share the physical tic of twisting our wrist to crack our arms, my sister likes to point out. Also, I swear Cash when he looks up at me with a certain look, he reminds me of my grandpa looking over his glasses with a scrunched brow. Their similar blue eyes, glimmering with curiosity.

Bernard Kennedy showed this same sort of servitude, loyalty, and respect as a husband to his beloved wife, Louise, of over 54 years.

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Grandma used to say the only way she knew Grandpa didn’t like one of the meals she’d prepared is that he wouldn’t ask for seconds. She also joked the reason they had so many kids was because Grandpa mumbled. He’d crawl into bed and say, “You wanna go to sleep or what?” She’d reply, “What?”

And grandpa took that to mean, well…eleven kids.

Bernard lost his other half in March of 2000. Louise was 77 and died of liver cancer.

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In her absence, he slid to life’s background.

He was still kind and cordial, but there was something missing in his eyes, in his voice, in his mind, in his heart. He was there but he just wasn’t.

His good health and sturdy genes forced him to stay in a world that no longer felt like it was his anymore. For eight years, he patiently waited to join Louise before finally joining her in 2008 at age 88.

Grandpa once said, “Young people may die, old people must.”

The “good man” was laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church he attended his whole life, next to his long-time wife, the other half.  Bernard never got over Louise.

Good thing, now he lays beside her.

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Bernard Kennedy-the salt of the earth-returned to it, hay in the barn…and the harvest of his family still growing strong…thanks to the man who raised things.

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Christmas 2014 – Bernard and Louise’s children, most grandchildren, most great-grandchildren…

Fill in the blanks

Since this site is named Wisconsin Dadger, it’s about time I start writing about Dads. This week and next, I will go back a bit and profile my grandDADs, both of whom have passed on. This week will be my mother’s Dad, William Cork.

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In Spring Green, Wisconsin, in 1920, William Cork became the sixth child born to Antonia (Kratcha) and Walter Cork.

Only six months after William’s birth, his father, Walter, fell to his death while at work on a construction site. It was Walter’s 40th birthday.

As my son, Cash, turns six months today, I can’t help but be horrified that if something ever happened to me at his current age, he would have no memory of me, of his dad, who is trying so hard to establish a fertile world for him to grow into.

Walter didn’t get to watch his son William grow up tall into a boy, a teen, a town athletic star and a man and a father himself.

William’s best sport was basketball.  At 6 feet 2 inches, William was considered a “Big Man” in the late ’30s.  He was recruited by several colleges and eventually decided to stay relatively close to home by attending UW-Lacrosse so the family could watch him play his Freshman year. Then, History set in.

The United States became involved in world war 2 and William joined hundreds of thousands of other young men, putting off personal interests for his country’s.

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William began a military career that became his entire work life as an airplane mechanic for the Air National Guard. He went deaf in one ear from year’s of plane noise but never complained about contributing his skills for the betterment of the fighting forces. He went up the ranks as highly respected Lt. Colonel.

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William married Charlotte Manning and they raised two sons and three daughters together. A military man of his era, he was a strong, silent father. An intimidating presence at his size, 6 ft 2 in tall and well over 200 pounds, not many of his children or anyone, crossed him. He was legendary for getting great deals on anything he bargained for-cars, houses, clothing. Slick salesmen dropped their act and their eyes around him.

His hard exterior had a soft spot for his kids and Charlotte.

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Upon retirement in his early 50s, he tapped into his Bohemian roots and Charlotte and he hit the road each year as the Wisconsin temperatures dipped below 40 degrees. They bought a small place in a Tucson, Arizona housing development and meandered across the Western interstates and highways to get there.

William and Charlotte had the playful bickering worthy of a television show. He had his worn upholstered chair and grandma her own faded blue lounger. Never did the other sit in the other’s chair nor did any guest. Grandma would sit back puffing her cigarette and recall an instance from their past or the name of an old neighbor’s daughter. Grandpa would question her memory by announcing to the room, “Sounds like someone’s telling stories.” She would reply, “Quiet! It’s true.” He would respond with a smirk, “Is that how it goes?” Grandma would grunt, “Dad! Anyway, as I was saying…”

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William continued his athletic pursuits throughout his life, a scratch golfer, a high-average bowler, and shooting buckets with me in the driveway, he still could swish a jump hook from ten feet out at the flick of a wrist and hop of the leg.

Off the athletic arena, he also surprised those around him. He was an early adaptor of the internet in his 70s, checking his stocks daily, and even sending emails to family members.

I eagerly awaited their return to Wisconsin each mid-Spring and what lumbering new Recreational Vehicle would turn into our driveway. Seemed they would upgrade to a new RV every few years, each one more “decked” out than the previous. They put the miles on. I remember running my little fingers along a plastic map of the United States mounted on their RV.  They colored in the states they’d been to on it. By the age of 12, I’d only been to a handful of states outside of Wisconsin, all thanks to a visit to see them in Arizona. I was easily impressed.

After a number of years, the map had only a few blank states remaining.

But, in 1992, the blank states would stay unfilled, as Charlotte was diagnosed with lung cancer, liver cancer that eventually crept to her brain. and died at the age of 67. William lost his travelmate.

Outside of his children, who tended to him, William became lonely and found a spark in his life with an old high school friend, Helen. They married and enjoyed each other’s company for seven years before William acquired a blood clot in his foot which caused the toe to die, and so had to be amputated.

After the surgery, he got an MRSA-a staph infection that got misdiagnosed which led to his rapid deterioration of health.  He died a little more than a year later.

William was a stoic, proud man and that’s why I treasure a rare glimpse into his softer side, a memory made a few months before his death at the age of 81.

Grandpa was lying in his bed and needed his crutches to get up and go to the bathroom.  Helen and my mom were out grocery shopping, so he called out for me.

Grandpa was a good size guy so I really had to heave him to get him to sit up at the bed’s edge.  I noticed the bandage on what was left of his foot was unspooling.

I reached down to tighten it and saw the purplish bruising around the amputation. It looked like half his foot, not just a big toe, was gone.  I pretended not to act a bit shocked at the sight, but I guess he knew I saw it.  I quickly secured it and pulled him up to his crutches. As we found ourselves in an accidental hug, he said in a steady, soft, sincere voice, “Thanks, Chris.”

A moment of vulnerability from a man who never showed much, struck me deeply. In that one moment, though he was never demonstrative with his gratitude and love for others, I felt both from him.

At his cold, February funeral, three old men, veterans as well, stood at attention, dressed in their military uniforms that fit them better in their younger bodies, were standing in shin-deep snow wearing inadequate dress shoes, as the brisk winds redded up their faces to honor my grandfather. Before the blasts of the 21 gun salute, one the men read a soldiers eulogy…something about being a brother through eternity.

Even more than a brother, William Cork is a father, grandfather and now, great-grandfather through eternity.

Considering he didn’t get to know his father, that is quite a legacy, I’m lucky to be a part of.

Life gave you some blank slates and blank states and you did your best to fill them with color.

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