My Uncle Ken (far left above) passed away on February 26 after a long and fruitful life (see complete obituary). Though it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen him, I can still remember the warm timbre of his voice, and the feeling of his kind presence in the room, as if it were yesterday. Ken was an amazing man, with a life full of accomplishments, and he will be missed greatly. He was a hero, in many senses of the word, and someone worth admiring and emulating.
First, he was a war hero. At the age of 20, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ken enlisted in the Army Air Corps and trained to be a B17 bomber pilot. Within a year and half, he was First Lieutenant, and then rose to Captain and Squadron Commander. He flew 29 missions over Europe, and was ultimately awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with clusters, and the European Campaign Ribbon with five major battle stars. All by the time he was 24. I didn’t even have my first real job by then, let alone the courage and determination it would take to fly into the fires of war to fight Nazi tyranny. And yet, he never spoke about it, as a point of pride or otherwise. He had done what he had to do, and that was the end of it. He stayed in touch with his Squadron throughout his life, and they honored him at his passing, 70 years after the events that brought them together.
Second, he was a hero of science. After receiving a BS in Metallurgy from UC Berkeley (my alma mater, where I also studied metallurgy), Ken worked as an engineer for Batelle, where he developed and patented a porous metallic alloy used in bone implants. He was included in Who’s Who in the West as a result in 1982-1983, and no doubt his discovery helped the lives of many.
Third, Ken was a hero to his family. Married to my Aunt Polly for 60 years, he has four children (my cousins Jody, Jennifer, Kirk and Darren) and a pack of 13 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. With all of them, he was loving, accepting and supportive, even when the kids did things that kids do. A clear symbol of their tight-knit family was the summer excursions he and Polly would organize to Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. Every year, they’d spend several weeks with the family enjoying walks on the beach, playing cards, and eating well (always something you could count on with the Wheeler clan).
In every aspect of his life, Ken gave the best of himself to the world and those around him, and we were enriched for it. He is the epitome of the everyday hero, and though he is gone, his gifts to the world live on in his family and in all the warm memories of him each of us carries.