greatest generation

Move over, Mitch Miller, we’ve got some singin’ to do

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 8, 2018

I have more than a few friends at Ginger Cove, an Annapolis-area continuing care retirement community. Several are in a men’s group I attend on Saturday mornings. Others I see when I’m out and about. But I’ve been traveling a lot this year — to Israel, Australia and elsewhere — so there are some I’ve not seen at all.

One of those is John Kenny, a good friend for more than a decade, so I gave him a call last week to see if we could meet for coffee.

Born in 1922, Kenny is a member of “the greatest generation” that served in World War II. He is also one of my heroes.

I first met him many years ago at Ginger Cove where he was active as chairman of a weekly gathering of men to hear outside speakers on politics, sports, the economy and culture. Kenny lined up the speakers, briefed them on the group’s interests, chaired the sessions, and generally held the group together with a menu of activities to help them stay up to date on cultural, public policy and personal development issues.

But Kenny’s gifts are not limited to organization and management. He is also an amateur musician. When I joined the Annapolis Rotary Club some years ago, one of the first faces I recognized was Kenny. It was hard to miss him because each Thursday he played his personal Yamaha keyboard that he hauled in every week as members belted out “East Side, West Side” or some other upbeat golden oldie to kick off the luncheon meeting. The older members and many of the younger knew all the words by heart. For the rest, there were song books.

Many years have passed since then. Kenny dropped his membership in the Rotary when, after the 2015 Annapolis Yacht Club fire, they moved their weekly meeting to the second floor of a downtown location with no elevator. Kenny, who will celebrate his 96th birthday in early May, said, “That was a bridge too far. I do my best to keep on keeping on, but sometimes it’s the better part of valor to recognize the reality of aging legs — and one of those is to avoid climbing 20 steps every week, lugging a keyboard, for a lunch I probably shouldn’t eat.”

Instead of meeting me at one of my favorite coffee houses, Kenny invited me to his apartment at Ginger Cove. After 64 years of marriage and being widowed twice, Kenny remarried eight years ago. He and Fritzi, also a widow and the mother of four adult children, will celebrate her 93rd birthday in September.

Because they had recently moved from independent living to assisted living, he wanted me to see their new digs. Despite his age and the occasional use of a walker, Kenny remains fully engaged in all kinds of productive activities. The list makes me dizzy.

He began his career with a degree in pharmacy in 1943, after which he spent WWII in the Navy. Kenny was one of the few to survive both the fighting off the Normandy beaches in the English Channel and, nearly a year later, the amphibious assault on Okinawa in the Pacific.

His job at Normandy: to clear the floating mines in the harbors of Cherbourg and Le Havre. At Okinawa: a gunnery officer on an armed rescue ship that would lead small boats of Marines to the beach and then do rescue patrols around 1,400 invasion vessels, picking up men whose ships were hit by kamikaze aircraft or other enemy fire.

When the war ended, Kenny became the owner of a pharmacy in San Francisco before joining E.R. Squibb, the pharmaceutical company (now Bristol-Myers Squibb), where over 15 years, he rose to the position of national sales manager for hospitals. After that there were 15 more years as a pharmacist for Walgreens and as association executive at the Board of Pharmacy in Milwaukee.

As his 50th birthday approached, Kenny decided to reboot with a major mid-course correction. He didn’t feel his 30-year career in pharmacy reflected his calling. Though he and his wife had four children, he “retired” from pharmacy to enroll in seminary at Northwestern University. Mission: to become an Episcopal deacon.

“After the first few weeks,” he told me, “I had a strong feeling that I was now on the right path.” Right path indeed.

Kenny has spent the last 44 years in the clergy — 20 years at a church in Connecticut and more than 24 years here in the Annapolis area, where he remains a full-time deacon at St. Anne’s parish, having retired as a one-Sunday-a-month deacon at St. Andrew’s parish in Pasadena.

In addition, Kenny leads a prayer group every Sunday for the residents in Ginger Cove’s 61-bed health center and an ecumenical service every Wednesday afternoon for Ginger Cove residents. According to Kenny, “These services are for the convenience of the residents. We sing songs; have readings from the Scriptures; and a very brief homily. It’s a good time for all to share in a spiritual community and reflect on their spiritual journey.”

He is also a member of the Religious Life Committee of Ginger Cove, a group that meets monthly.

He no longer lines up speakers for the men’s group, but he does play soft music on his keyboard in the Ginger Cove dining room once a month.

When we met last week, I asked Kenny how the music was going. He said, “My fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be, but they still work.”

That’s when I learned that Kenny leads sing-along sessions that include 50 to 60 residents who show up once a month for an hour of musical nostalgia. This month’s sing-along includes a poetry reading, a “name that tune” contest and 15 songs, beginning with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “April Showers” and concluding with “God Bless America.”

Kenny also plays Santa Claus for Ginger Cove grandchildren and employees’ families.

I was stunned to find that Kenny still devotes 15 hours a year to continuing education to keep his pharmacy license active in California and Maryland. “Why?” I asked. Kenny said, “I may want to do that again some day. You never know.”

Last year, Kenny called his alma mater, University of California San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy, to enroll in some courses. The courses he wanted weren’t available, but a few weeks later the dean called him back, inviting him to address the “white coat” ceremony for the pharmacy Class of 2021. Kenny accepted, and last October he and his daughter picked up a flight to San Francisco where he made a special presentation around the ceremony where the students first donned their white coats, a symbol for health care professionals for more than 100 years.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked, “John, you are comfortable in the white coat of a pharmacist as well as the robes of a cleric, so let me ask you, how do you think about death and dying?”

Without skipping a beat, Kenny replied, “In the years since I’ve turned my life over to the Lord, I don’t think about it. I just live in the present. The Lord’s Prayer says, ‘Give us this day…’ That’s the way I think about it. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow I might be gone. But when I wake up every morning, I thank God I’m still here, and I get on with loving my wife, enjoying and serving my friends and doing what I can to make the world a better place.”

As Kenny accompanied me to the exit, we walked by Sam Gustaves, sitting in the foyer and reading a Donna Leon novel while waiting to go to dinner.

Gustaves and Kenny are friends, so Kenny introduced me. Gustaves — now 101 years old, another of the “greatest generation” — was a pilot in WWII, flying B-17s in Europe and B-29s in the Pacific.

I was prepared to talk to Gustaves, also a very articulate guy, for another 90 minutes. But he was going to dinner with friends. I think that was more important.

What a blessing to walk among heroes.

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