“Do your kids a favor, don’t make their lives easy” was an expression coined in the early ’90s, directed toward parents who had the misguided notion that the best pathway to adulthood was one devoid of disappointment. In fact, of course, hardship, failure, and disappointment can be life’s best teacher. Every adult who was raised in the 1930s knew adversity. Most males came to appreciate the value of boot camp, and a drill sergeant whose mission in life was to make them miserable. And, along the way, our youth became mature, responsible and accountable. Children born in the twenties and thirties endured awful economic conditions and natural disasters.
And then things got really difficult.
The reality is that for anyone alive today who is part of our Greatest Generation, they had zero risk of an easy life. There was no chance a parent filled with good intentions would smooth out the bumps, eliminate the potential for failure or hurt feelings. Even those born into money lost most of it in the Great Depression.
And all of this comes to mind having just returned from Great Bend for Pat Keenan’s funeral. Pat was born on August 14, 1934. Historians tell us that the summer he turned 2 – roughly at the time of his birthday in 1936 – it was the hottest summer in Kansas history, with temperatures one day in August reaching 117 degrees in McPherson and 116 degrees in Hays. And that was in the shade. Good luck finding a tree in Stafford County.
If you haven’t read a book entitled “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan about life on the plains in the dirty thirties – put it on your list. Egan describes that the worst storm during the Dust Bowl was recorded on Sunday, April 14, 1935. Called Black Sunday, Egan tells us the storm carried twice as much dirt as was extracted in the digging of the Panama Canal. That effort took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a two days and sent airborne 300,000 tons of topsoil.
While that storm was seen most prominently in Oklahoma and Texas, Kansas was not spared. Historians tell us it blew all the way to Washington, D.C. In that period physicians developed a term for a fatal condition: dust pneumonia. No doubt locals reading this column know people who succumbed to it.
Following the dust storms came another ominous threat – jackrabbits and grasshoppers. And yes, this is starting to sound like a Charlton Heston movie.
Consider further that the year Pat was born, and for the next five years, the country’s unemployment rate averaged 16 percent. To be sure, Pat’s youth spared him of some of the adversity, but it was absolutely part of the culture.
What did not spare Pat is what happened in June, 1943. His mother, and the mother to nine of his siblings, Mary Hall Keenan, would die of cancer. Pat, the youngest, was 8, and his brother Larry was 13. All of her 10 children were present on June 21, 1943, at St. Rose hospital when she died. Larry’s poignant narrative of those events was preserved as part of a Keenan history project. Watch it here.
At her funeral at St. Francis parish on June 23, the typed eulogy, delivered by Father Tainter, was recently discovered. It includes moving prose: “There is probably not in the whole range of emotions sorrows a more bitter hour of painful loneliness than in that day a man is called upon to put his partner in life, the mother of his own children, into the silence of the grave. A beautiful union has been severed here, and a happy family has been bereaved in grief. ... Those family blessings which surrounded her will indeed be missed by the family as the days go on, especially by her husband, on whom the grief falls most heavily, particularly since there are yet two little ones left who need the guiding and sustaining hand of a Mother’s love.”
Economic hardship, record breaking heat, dust storms, and then, as the youngest of 10 you lose your mother.
Other than that, Pat’s young life was grand.
But he survived because of family. And Pat had an abundance of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and of course, his dad, Pat Sr. who was a towering leader in the community. And collectively they either found a way or forged a new path to overcome adversity.
Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” was dedicated to those who enlisted in World War II but also reveals how so many of the young adults, like Pat, and his many siblings were accustomed to hard work and long hours. “Many had grown up on farms where the days ran from daybreak to past sundown, where the work meant just that – work – the back-breaking, callus making kind of work in hayfields and cattle barns, in primitive kitchens and rudimentary laundry rooms.” That work ethic is was in play in Great Bend in the ’50s and ’60s as so many residents relocated to the city after growing up on surrounding farms. Businesses flourished and neighborhoods grew and schools reached capacity in Barton County.
Pat Keenan was in the middle of it all. “He saw so much opportunity and was always optimistic about the future. Over the years so many people in the community placed their faith in him — whether it was to sell their parents’ estate in an auction or to represent them in a real estate sale,” said his wife of 58 years Dortha. Pat gave back to a city where he lived for almost 60 years, serving on the County commission, city council and helping raise money for countless charitable causes including Barton Community College Foundation, Barton and Stafford County 4-H, Art Inc., Ducks Unlimited, Catholic Social Service and the St. Lawrence Catholic Student Center in Lawrence.
Patrick Keenan, and his entire generation, “stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith,” Brokaw observed in his best-selling book. And as much as anything, everyone believed that no matter their life’s circumstances, they were blessed with good fortune and unlimited potential to achieve success. Indeed.
Godspeed Patrick Keenan.