The Parting Glass: R.E.K.

It’s no secret that my grandpa was one of the most important people in my life, and laying him to rest today was emotional. I had the honor of writing his biography for the funeral program, and giving the short eulogy during Mass. The ceremony was beautiful and, just as the bagpipes began to play after the recession, it started to rain and thunder. The sun came out again as we all surrounded his grave and the honor guard played Taps. He had 94 and a half great years and died last week knowing the Cubs won the World Series, surrounded by family. We sent him off with a graveside toast of whiskey, naturally. We played “The Parting Glass,” had a good cry and poured one out.
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Robert Emmett Kelley was born May 3, 1922, and raised in a two-flat on Chicago’s West Side by Eileen and Daniel. Bob grew up with his brother, Fran, during a time when if you had enough, you were rich and you fed those who didn’t on your door stoop. The “waste not, want not” ethos of the Great Depression inspired a lifetime of frugality and generosity. He was the kind of guy who gave the shirt off his back and never let a rebate opportunity go unfulfilled.

Bob’s first job, as a youngster earning 10 cents for helping the milkman fulfill his route, provided him with a lifetime of stories about the milk horse Boots and a work ethic that would see him through 40 years in the education field. Bob was revered as a counselor at Kennedy High School and beloved by his staff at the Board of Education, not just for the Irish coffee he was known to serve on St. Patrick’s Day.

Known as “Abbey” among his friends at St. Mel’s high school and by his baseball teammates on the Redwings, Bob had a good-natured charisma and gift of gab that drew people to him – and earned him flight upgrades on occasion. The most notable of his admirers was Kathleen “Kay” Foley, whom he married in March of 1946.

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They met at the Chicago Teacher’s College and like many in their generation, were kept apart by the Second World War. From 1942-46, Bob served as Recognition officer in the United States Navy. He fought in the Pacific theater, notably in the Battle of Okinawa. More than once, his quick wit and good instincts served him well there and throughout his life.

Bob and Kay built a life together in Westchester, Illinois, where they joined Divine Infant Parish. They brought up their five children: Bob, Carol Ann, Kathy, Mary Lee and Dan, in a too-small house where – as the kids tell it – a single steak fed seven. As a young family, they spent summer vacations at the lake in Northern Wisconsin and loved to visit and play Bridge with friends.

The Kelleys moved to LaGrange, where Bob would love to read on the porch, while simultaneously watching the Cubs game and listening to classical music. Soon, that house filled with ten grandchildren and eventually five great-grandchildren who would sit at his lap to hear stories, enjoy a meal and maybe a game of Scrabble or Boggle. All can trace their love of language back to years of hearing Sloppy Joes referred to as “Untidy Josephs” and trying to maximize the triple word score.

But those are just the biographical details of a man who was rare even among “The Greatest Generation.” To feel the warmth of his love – in the form of a newspaper clipping and a $2 bill to let you know he was thinking about you, or a home cooked dinner with cookies for the road – leaves us with so many warm and happy memories.

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I still can’t believe he’s gone. But in a lot of ways, he never will be. Listen to his StoryCorps, watch us make Irish Soda Bread and his family-famous Beef Stew.

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For those who don’t know me, I am one of Bob’s granddaughters, Brianne, and I was asked to give this eulogy because brains and beauty skip a generation.

That was funnier before I became a parent.

My grandpa wasn’t the kind of person who would straight out tell you he loved you. But he wasn’t one to leave you guessing, either. You knew because he’d call you to tell you Les Mis is on PBS at eight — and then call back five more times just blasting the music from the show before hanging up abruptly. You knew because he’d wink and put a doo-dad of extra ice cream on top of an already full scoop. You knew because he would mail you a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune that – proverbially, at least – had your name on it, Shorty.

My Grandpa was part of that Greatest Generation whose sacrifices, hard work and sense of humor set the stage for our own success. His sayings – and there were so many – will always echo in my heart, but it was the generosity and tenderness he showed to us that will define him for me. To me, grandpa was like the Giving Tree, who shed its leaves and apples and branches and trunk for love of a little boy. As a great grandpa, all he could offer was a quiet place to sit and rest. But it was enough. The pride he took in holding those babies on his chest, and seeing us grandchildren find jobs and love — it surrounded him. And he was happy. And what more can we ask for, really?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Parting Glass: R.E.K.

  1. How you honor him, in who you have always been and who you will always be. Love to you all.

  2. Martha peaslee Daniel

    Beautiful tribute to an exceptional man. RIP Robert Kelley ❤️

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