Most readers of this blog know that my father passed away on December 29th. The days since his passing have been challenging. One of things that I have discovered during this time is that things happen fast. There are so many details that need to be attended to when you lose a loved one. My Dad didn’t want a funeral but we did it anyway. I was able to speak about how special my Dad was (although I didn’t share enough about all of the people he helped through his job as a banker). What he did want was an open bar to celebrate his life; that much we got right. Over 100 of my Dad’s closest friends got together the day before his funeral and celebrated is life Irish wake style. It was amazing how many people he told about his desire to have that kind of celebration. We told stories and we laughed and we cried. I was proud that my family was able to honor him in that way, but I’ve been a little haunted about one thing. I wrote an obituary that was posted on the funeral home website and in the Kearney, Nebraska paper. It was OK, but it really didn’t do justice to my Dad. With your indulgence I’m going to take one more crack at it. It will be too long and it still won’t do my Dad justice, but I feel the need to try to get it right this time. This one’s for you Dad.
Don Kearney (April 21, 1937-December 29, 2014)
Don Kearney was born in Elm Creek, Nebraska to Ted and Ila Kearney. Don was proud to be from Elm Creek. He went to school and started his career in the town of around 900 people. Don would often talk about what is was like to grow up as a relatively poor kid from Elm Creek. His parents didn’t have much, but they were pillars of the community. They knew everyone and everyone knew them. Don grew up doing all that he could to please his parents. He was a very good student and he was active in music and in athletics (although there is considerable debate about how good an athlete he actually was). He wanted to become a teacher, but a car accident cut short his college career. He went to the bank to get a $300 loan and was denied. But, as was often the case, Don turned this challenge into an opportunity. The banker in Elm Creek offered to teach him the banking profession.
Over the course of his 56 year career he worked for at least 37 banks. He never considered himself a mentor and yet there are many bankers across the country who considered him just that. Don was very proud of his work. He was responsible for hundreds of businesses getting their start because he believed in the people who came in and sold him on their dreams. He was responsible for thousands of people getting the opportunity to buy homes and cars. When there were times he didn’t feel the bank could make a loan he would sometimes make the loan out of his own pocket. Don was particularly proud of the role he played in the growth of Ames, Iowa and Kearney, Nebraska during his time banking in those cities. Don also spent 16 years as a member of the Kearney, Nebraska City Council.
Don was also a proud family man. He met his future wife Colette in Denver, Colorado. After dating for a very brief time he asked Colette (known as Coc) to marry him and she turned him down initially. Not one to take rejection very well he was persistent and she eventually accepted his proposal. Don and Colette were married in Fairmont, Minnesota on June 25, 1966. They were married for 45 years. They had two sons, Patrick and Sean. Don was very proud that he provided both of his sons with a college education. He had great affection for Pat’s wife Cathy. There wasn’t a situation in which Don didn’t take Cathy’s side in a family conversation. Don was always thrilled to spend time with his sister Bonnie and his brother Bob. The Kearney family loved to play cards and to argue with each other. Don had great affection for his many aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. He also loved his grandchildren Breanna, Brogan, Noah, Madeline, and Tyler.
While Don was a great banker, a proud city leader, a tremendous father and family man, a dedicated Iowa State Cyclone Fan, a begrudging Nebraska Cornhusker Fan and a staunch Democrat, it will be his devotion as a husband that stands out to those who knew him best. Colette was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1979. Don made sure that she had the best possible medical care. They traveled around the country to get the best treatments for her. In her final years Coc’s health deteriorated but she didn’t want to be in a nursing home or a hospital. She asked Don to take care of her at home and he did just that. It is almost impossible to describe the work it took for Don to care for Coc during her final years, but he did it because that was the vow he made to her. He lived out the vows of “in sickness and in health, for better and for worse.” In health he and Coc traveled the world (he kissed the Blarney Stone three times) and lived a fantastic life. In sickness he not only cared for her, he frequently literally carried her. It was hard work, but his vow was unbreakable. When Colette passed away in 2012 Don never really got over her. He talked often about how lonely he was without her.
Don wasn’t sick very often. He fought off prostate cancer, but other than that he was mostly healthy. Despite being a smoker and a pretty good drinker he had a doctor tell him in the last year that he could live another 20 years. He really didn’t like the sound of that to be honest. At some point this December he started to feel sick. He was in the hospital for about 24 hours about two weeks before he passed away and they didn’t find anything specific. He knew something wasn’t right, but he wasn’t going to spend any more days in a hospital. In his final days he told several people that he was tired, but that he was “doing better.” He clearly wasn’t. His heart stopped in his home sometime early in the morning of December 29th, 2014.
Don was at times humble and at times not so much humble. He didn’t like funerals because he thought they made everyone come off as more saintly than they were in real life. Don certainly wasn’t a saint in your traditional sense of the word, but he was special. Whether it was through caring for his wife, taking care of his sons, making loans to people with big and small dreams, mentoring his colleagues, making his city a better place to live or simply by telling stories that changed from time to time based on how much he might have drank, Don was one of a kind. Maybe not a saint, but definitely a character. He would much prefer we think of him as a character anyway.
So, it’s not perfect, but that’s my obituary to my Dad. I told him often how proud I was of him, but he didn’t really seem to accept that kind of praise. It is important for me to say that I am VERY proud to be the son of Don and Colette Kearney. Who our families are is something of a lottery. I won that lottery.