With Father’s Day coming this weekend, I lifted some pieces of my book “Raised on the Radio” that talk about my dad. He’s been gone for almost 25 years but I have wonderful memories to share.
My dad, Ken Kahler around age 50
My father Ken was a hairdresser by trade with plans to open his own beauty shop. A year before my birth, Ken Kahler, the son of M. Kenneth, a steel sales executive and his wife Lillian, a stay at home mom, courted and married Dorie Landman. My mom was married before and had a daughter Maryanne who we always knew as Mary. Mary was four years older than me. Back then, single mothers in my mom’s situation were an uncommon sight and since Mary’s biological father was not in the picture, my dad eagerly adopted her.
My mom and dad holding me in the summer of 1961.
Pop had a dry wit but it wasn’t something he shared with many outside the family. My passion for movies came from him. My dad had an encyclopedic knowledge of films dating back to when he was a teenager. He could name the stars featured in any major film released to theatres and his taste in quality movies was impeccable.
The most valued trait I got from my dad and the rest of my family was their ability to do extra special things for others. When a birthday came up, they’d say, “What can we do that’s REALLY outstanding?” An example would be when I was seventeen and dad surprised me with tickets to see comedian George Carlin. He knew I listened to Carlin’s albums, found out about a Chicago area appearance he was making and took me out for a night of hilarity. Seeing George Carlin in concert when I was still in high school, how many teens can say their father treated them to something that cool?
How many 17 year olds can say their dad was cool enough to surprise them with tickets to see George Carlin in concert? I can!
My dad and mom had a liberal attitude towards alcohol. They told me to call them if I was ever too liquored up to drive, get a ride home from someone sober or just stay over where I was until the morning. My parents’ attitude was ‘If he’s going to learn about drinking, it’s best he do it early and around us when possible.’ By age seventeen they allowed me and my friends to drink at our house.
Me to the left and my dad after a holiday party. Note his sweater, the same one worn years later by Jeff Bridges as ‘The Dude’ in “The Big Lebowski.”
One time when I was working at White Castle, my parents rode over in 2 cars to drop one car off so I could go out after my shift. After handing me the keys my dad walked out the door. An attractive female co-worker, about 10 years older than me asked who that guy was. I said that was my dad. She smiled and sincerely said, “He’s a very handsome man.” I turned to her and commented, “Yeah, I never thought of that before but you’re right!”
My dad at Christmas in the 1970’s.
I move forward to 1993- I’d been producing radio shows in Chicago for over 8 years. In May of ‘93, the entire cast of the show I was on was let go. I was “On the Beach.”
“On the Beach” is a radio term that means you’re unemployed and looking for a new job. That was me in mid-May when the Murphy in the Morning Show folded. Not to brag, but interest in my producing services started up right away with three different radio stations wanting to interview me for potential employment.
However, radio career ponderings were pulled to the side of the road the Friday of Memorial Day weekend when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Cancer! Our whole family was stunned! Dad suffered a seizure in a grocery store a few days before and underwent further testing. The cat-scan revealed the cancer started in his lungs then spread to his brain and adrenal glands. Up until the day of his seizure, none of this ugly disease manifested itself in any symptoms.
Dad was always healthy and strong. Growing up, when everyone in our house would catch a bad flu my dad stayed in perfect health. The oncologists said the most time he had left to live was until Christmas. While I had lost my grandfather Kahler in the past and my mom’s mother the year before, this was flooring news. My mother quit smoking a year earlier and dad quit a few months before being diagnosed. It was too late. Many years of smoking caught up to him and the cancer horse was long gone out of the barn.
While juggling these radio meetings and trips to the hospital to see my dad, I knew the decision of which job to take was going to be based on stability. I was looking for long term employment and gave myself plenty of time to make the right choice.
My parents amicably divorced seven years before dad’s cancer. There were no third parties or drinking or abuse happening; my folks’ relationship as man and wife just ran out of steam. The funny thing was they got along better after they split up. My dad dealt with his mortality and my mother stepped up with full support. Mom was a constant comfort for him, reading Bible passages and doing anything and everything possible to make things easier for him. My sister and I did what we could as well.
Dad got home from the hospital in time for Father’s Day 1993. I took as much time as I could to be with him. We saw movies, had lunches together and discussed my work options. I ended up accepting the job offer from WUSN, US*99.
During the first two months at my new radio home, US*99 accommodated my need to spend as much time with my terminally ill father as possible. I worked each weekday but would leave right at show’s end at ten a.m. to see him. I was allowed to miss staff meetings and other events. When dad was first given his grim diagnosis, I immediately took care of all his funeral arrangements and plans. The obituaries, the urn he would be buried in as he opted for cremation and other details. I did this early on so when my dad got home from the hospital we could all focus on having quality days with him.
Over the next few weeks, my ailing dad took in visitors and went out with relatives and friends to lunches and other places while he was still able. He bought different greeting cards for everyone in his life and wrote special letters to each person as a last goodbye. Dad regretted smoking for so many years since he knew this was what was killing him but he never complained. He never said, “Why me?” His only concern was whether this cancer would leave him gasping or choking in his final moments. This worry was alleviated by the amazing care he got from the Hospice of Du Page people. Several times a week he got house calls from nurses and counselors. After he passed, we made sure that all memorial donations went directly to this organization of incredible caregivers.
I planned the memorial service and was set to write and deliver my dad’s eulogy. A few days before he slipped into a coma, I finished the tribute and my sister Mary read it to him. I couldn’t do it because I was an emotional wreck. After hearing what would be the last formal words said in public about him, my dad and I had our last heart to heart talk. I’ll always be grateful that we were able to have this kind of time together, I know he was too.
My pop wanted to accomplish more in his life but I assured him he did way better than he gave himself credit for. Dad was a dedicated and loving son who took care of his elderly mother after his father died. He served in the U.S. Navy, met and married my mom and adopted her daughter and fathered me. Dad had a career he loved and supported his family with, settling us in a great neighborhood in a good town. His beauty shop did well in spite of having two other salons on the same street, just a half a block from his place. After selling his business, my dad started a new career as a hairstyling teacher at the DAVEA vocational school. His students loved “Mr. Ken.”
Back in the mid-eighties he surprised me by taking over my college loan re-payment schedule. Dad didn’t want to see me saddled with any debt and had the means to knock out my owed balance quickly. This was the kind of man my father was. He also became the doting grandfather to Mary and her husband Jack’s children Doreen and Michael.
In the early morning hours of Sunday August 15th, surrounded by his loving family, Kenneth Robert Kahler passed away peacefully at the way too young age of age fifty-eight. Smoking ended a life that should’ve gone on for another thirty years. My dad’s own mother would live to the age of ninety-five. I was glad he passed quietly and that my eulogy was read to him as our final farewell.
My sister Mary helped with dad’s memorial service as she handled the scripture readings and shared some of her own fond memories of the only man she knew as her father. I wrapped up my eulogy with a quote from the liner notes on John Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” album; “There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands.” Those eleven words were a huge comfort to me. Then we had the wonderful Paul Overstreet song “Seeing My Father in Me” played for the room packed full of mourners.
The man who raised me to think so well of others, who taught me patience, how to appreciate good movies and passed on his dry wit to me was now gone. There has not been a day since when I haven’t thought of my dad. I miss him so very much and always will.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad and to all the dads!