Healing in a Post 9/11 World

My Grandfather on my mom’s side was a firefighter his entire life. He lived in a “village” called Ladue, a St. Louis suburb. He paid $5000 for the house in Ladue that sat on Waverly Drive in the 1920s or 1930s and it’s the house he lived in when he died in 2002.

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He was a simple man with a huge smile. He loved his family, his backyard, and a good cold beer. He listened to Cardinals games on the radio, long after it was available on TV.

When he died, I had made a terrible decision to work that week and “I’d be there that weekend!”. Surely, my invincible grandfather who survived many house fires wasn’t going to die before I get there.

He did.

I was wracked with guilt. I mourned how much my mom mourned, and I still hear the pain echo in her voice as she would randomly say “I miss my dad” for the next 6 years until she joined him in their heavenly home.

My mom asked me to write an obituary since I was “Such a good writer”. I did write it.

The newspaper sent back a “That’s too long” message that stung. I shortened it to the obligatory length for a tiny section of the newspaper that could never fully summarize my grandfather.

So, my REAL obituary honoring him was read at this funeral.

Today, as we still have the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 ringing in our minds and hearts, I wanted to share this piece of my life with you. It’s a writing that poured out without much thought, and I didn’t want to rewrite what my heart said, just this one time. I wasn’t going to grammar check my grief.

Here it is, for everyone who’s lost a first responder, for anyone who’s loved their country, and for everyone who remembers simpler times with Grandpa.

I miss you, Leonard. I hope I did you proud.

LEONARD HENRY KEMP (1907 – 2002)

“Say the word ‘firefighter’ these days and even the most inattentive person will lift his or her chin a bit higher and smile.

Since the September 11th attacks, Americans have taken extra notice of the already heralded job. Every firefighter’s life can be summarized in one sentence – ‘I will die for you’ from the firefighters who fell with the twin tower to the one who passed away Friday morning.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a hero as ‘a person admired for their achievements and noble qualities.’ Webster must have known my grandfather.

He went by many names, ‘Cap’, “Leonard’, ‘Mr. Kemp’, ‘Dad’, ‘Grandpa’, but the best thing about him was you didn’t have to say a word to generate that great smile that spread across his weathered face. You simply had to approach him.

Memories of almost a century of life were parked behind that smile. He was a St. Louisan from the start, born in 1907. He loved his city and everything about it. His opinion on the latest Cardinals game was always known, whether you wanted it or not. I partially blame him for the fact that no matter where I travel I can’t pass a television during hockey season without asking ‘How did the Blues do today’ just in case I talked to him I didn’t not want to know the correct answer.

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He spent 44 years as a firefighter before retiring and worked his way through the ranks to Captain.

70 years ago this month, Leonard Kemp became a firefighter for the Village of Ladue. He was one of the original members. When the sun rose on Friday, he was the only remaining living one. By the time the sun went down, the original group had been reunited.

He is survived by his wife Frances, to whom he was married for seven decades.

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He has three children, seven grandchildren, and at least give great-grandchildren. I say at least because there are more to come, and while they won’t get the jour of hearing his voice or sitting on his lap, they WILL know him.

He was a man who lived through the Depression and remembered it as well at age 90 as he did at age 30. A man who called each Christmas and bellowed ‘THIS IS SANTA CLAUS!’. He said it with such conviction you didn’t want him to know you were onto him.

A man who sat in his frayed foldable chair, which was strategically placed in his Ladue driveway, just so he could marvel at the beauty of his own backyard.

NOTE: That’s me on his lap, a place that always felt like home.

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You may not know him as ‘Cap’, ‘Leonard’, ‘Mr. Kemp’, ‘Dad’, or ‘Grandpa’, but remember him as another fallen hero.

Captain Leonard Kemp, a retired firefighter from the Ladue Fire Department, passed away Friday at the age of 95.

See, I knew you would lift your chin and smile.”

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