At an age when other men had retired to luxury sedans, -- if they were still driving at all -- Kenny Isely was still running his errands around town in a turbocharged, red sportscar.
Perhaps that sums up Kenny Isely, as I knew him: Even when he could barely walk, he seemed irrepressibly energetic and constantly busy. As long as Kenny had the slightest capacity for work, he found work to do, -- with both mind & body -- or created it.
His work life began at an early age. At 13 or 14, as soon as he discovered he could ride his bike the mile and a half from his house, to the Swallow Airport (just a couple miles north of here on Hillside) Kenny began hanging around the airfield constantly. It was home to Swallow Manufacturing Co., who built Wichita's first successful line of airplanes, the first successful commercial airplanes in America, though, at the start of the Great Depression, Swallow's line was coming to an end.
Yet Kenny was so persistently present, the Swallow people gave him a job, for about a dollar a day, washing airplanes, doing odd jobs, and eventually building ribs for the wings of the last Swallow biplanes.* Wanting to be an airplane designer, Kenny studied drafting in high school, making himself more valuable to Swallow, eventually becoming its lone draftsman. But times were hard, and as Swallow faded away, Kenny joined Beech Aircraft, where his skill with aircraft drawings & manufacturing eventually landed him in the loft overlooking the production line, where he reviewed all airplane design changes to fit them to the practical reality of manufacturing. He stayed at this critical war-factory job throughout most of World War II, when lives literally hung in the balance of every decision he shaped. His boss, Beech Assistant Chief Engineer Milt Chester summed up Kenny's service in a letter of reference to the Navy: saying Kenny "has proved himself capable of handling any type of assignement connected with aircraft production and maintenance" noting also his "responsibility" and "initiative" and "high moral principles," adding that Kenny "could, without question, be relied upon in any circumstances." So near war's end, he was freed from his job long enough to serve two years in the Navy in San Diego, helping maintain the fleet of seaplanes that helped keep the nation strong.
Returning to his Beech job after the war, Kenny soon found a tough decision: Airplanes or Love -- -- his love of Figure-Skating. From childhood, Kenny had indulged in the art, and taken it quite seriously. He joined the Wichita Figure Skating Club & U.S. Figure Skating Association in his early 20s, skated in the California championships during the war, and became a USFSA intermediate judge in '47, refereeing the first Wichita competition in '48.*** When offered the rare opportunity to perform at the globally-famed Broadmoor Ice Arena in Colorado, Beech refused to give him the time to go. So Kenny made the choice to sacrifice a secure, well-paid career, for an amateur's dream of artistry on ice.
But his aircraft career did not fade, and it funded his skating dreams. With his exceptional aircraft skills, he found work at Boeing, then at Rawdon (at one time their only worker)**** and later for aviation entrepreneurs Glen Stearman & Dave Blanton. Blanton's son Bob, remembers Kenny as sociable and positive, -- a "real contributor" and a problem-solver around the shop.
The technical skills from aircraft jobs gave him the power to do things that few skaters could dream of. He could not only sharpen and fix skates, but could actually design and build them, and entire ice rinks, as well. Building one in his backyard, he soon found the electric bill prohibitive, and decided to go professional to make it pay. Soon, Kenny was instructing students by the score. Following the closing of the popular Alaskan Ice Palace, where he'd once perfomed, Kenny's little backyard rink became the only indoor rink in Wichita for over a dozen years. Here, student after student, in cold weather or warm, could acquire the art and skill to live their dream of truly dancing on ice. Knowing the risks of injury from improper skating, Kenny could be a tough taskmaster, insisting on studious students and pefectionist performance. But he worked hard at helping them become the best skaters they could be, even inventing gadgets to help them learn. He left students with skills that could boost their confidence, not only on the ice rink, but in life at large. And he kept joy in their skating life, ending nearly every class with a fun bit for the delighted student. You skaters can tell us more about that.++
In the years to come, almost every major ice rink in the Wichita area would, in part, entrust its creation or continuance to Kenny's exceptional guidance. Not content with the rinks he built and ran, Kenny also invented a PORTABLE ice rink, to spread the beautiful spectacle of figure skating -- throughout the community, state and region -- organizing or producing competitions and shows for local figure skaters to showcase their gifts.
It is hard to imagine what would have become of figure-skating in Wichita for half a century without Kenny Isely. But his reach is farther. He helped reorganize the nation's Professional Skaters Assn. in 1967, and helped shape rules for judging, and produced trade magazine articles, skater's manuals & videos, on the art and craft of figure-skating. He put his technical talents to work, inventing new kinds of skates, and skating equipment, inspiring inventors nationwide. Just ONE of his ice skate patents, is cited by a dozen other inventors+++ in THEIR patents for a better skate. The year before he turned 90 Kenny coached the comeback of nearly-50-year old Andy Schell to win the Silver Medal at the 2007 U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships**
Yet he still found time for studying astronomy, science, history, and adding his own commentary to those fields, too. Wichita State University Library's Special Collections Division is archiving his papers and records, and I commend them to you for your enlightenment.++++ Along life's way, Kenny was a musician, playing flute in the WSU orchestra, and a painter and sculptor whose sculptures have found their way into museums near and far. The term "Renaissance Man" was once applied to a special breed of man who was not just a "Jack of All Trades" but a master of many, in diverse, important, and creative fields. If that could be said of any man truly, that term includes Kenny Isely.
He was born to a bit of social status, but EARNED all the status he owned in later life. "From whom much is given," Jesus warned, "Much is required." And so it was with Kenny, requiring -- of himself -- much, at all times. He was a confident Christian, and a steadfast Republican, who always put DOING and BEING above WANTING and HAVING. Never lacking in intellegence or refinement he was nevertheless never too proud to labor with his hands, and -- indeed -- prove the Gospel phrase "The worker is worthy of his wages." Yet he blessed us with his inspiration, by his teaching, and his example, to -- each of us -- reach inside us to find that spark of ability and use it to ignite our opportunity to be so much more with the gifts God has given us. Let's all take a bit of his values home with us, when we leave here today, along with the memory of this steady giant who has passed through our lives, enriching us all.
And let us thank God for his blessing in our lives praying for God to take him to a generous and loving reward, now and forever, and that we will all join him in God's own time, someday.
Richard Harris, online at: http://home.iwichita.com/rh1
Friend of Kenny Isely
Former Secretary, Fairmount Neighborhood Association, Wichita
Kansas Aviation Historian, for the
Kansas 150 (sesquicentennial) Speakers Bureau of the Kansas Humanities Council ( http://www.kansashumanities.org )
* Swallow Mfg. Co.: Ironically, over half a century later, Kenny would (in his home machine shop) fabricate some of the parts for the Kansas Aviation Museum's replica of Wichita's original Laird/Swallow biplane, the first successful commerical airplane in America. How fitting that the (probable) last survivor of Swallows' airplane-manufacturing years would survive to build the only known example of its industry-pioneering first plane.
** Silver Medalist: See the USFSA news article: "Nicholas Chou Returns to the Top in Championship Gold Men," by Troy Schwindt, April 14, 2007, online at: http://www.usfigureskating.org/event_story.asp?id=38393
*** Skating, 1940s: A skating colleague of the '40s and '50s -- and annual local "Ice Kapers" figure-skating extravaganza -- recalled Kenny's talents, and his passionate involvement with the local skating organizations. She was delighted to find their photos adjacent to each other, showing them as 2 of the 5 main stars of the show, on the official program of the 1951 "Ice Kapers."
**** A Rawdon Aircraft co-worker's son, Gordon L. Greer, attended the funeral, and spoke of Kenny's friendly teasing when the boy visited the Rawdon shop.
++ "...you skaters can tell us more..." Several skaters shared their experiences. One woman (seemingly in her late 20s to early 40s) said it had been many years since she had seen Kenny (as one of his child students), yet she remembered clearly his inspiring warmth and kindness towards children, adding "and I still think about him all the time." A parent of two of his skating students, his guardian Nancee Scherich recounted how, after nearly every lesson, he would reward and delight the kids with an airplane spin", lifting and hurling the children in circles on the ice, as the "flying" half of a figure-skating duo, with Kenny as the dutiful "hoister." Nancee recalled how the mothers cringed as their children "flew" in ecstatic circles around their gifted senior partner.
+++ "one of his... patents... ...cited by a dozen other..." Here's a patent, of Kenny's, U.S. Patent #3,947,050 March 30, 1976 of skate with replaceable blade edge and cruciform toe brake that I found online at: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/3947050.html (Below a bunch of ad links, the patent text is provided. ALSO has a link to the Adobe Acrobat PDF file of the actual patent document, which has both the drawings and the text) A search of that website turned up 16 patents, by different individuals, that each reference Kenny's above-noted patent.
++++ "WSU is archiving his papers..."
Kenny has already aided the archiving, there, of the papers of his parents, and his aunt M. Alice Isely, former WSU librarian. Kenny left his "house and contents" to the University, to support the M. Alice Isely fund, and to enrich the
Special Collections division of the University library.
A University archivist, present at the funeral, explained that the catastrophic fire which destroyed the original WSU building, the Fairmount College administration building, about a century ago, took with it all the archives of the University up to that time, leaving the community largely blinded to its early history -- and that the Isely papers had proved critical to 'filling the gap' in this massive historic loss to the community.
Many of the Iselys, Kenny included, have written various treatises on the history of the neighborhood and adjoining univeristy and Fairmount Church, and on Wichita and its area, state and region. Some of these dcocuments are in WSU's Special Collections, already, with Kenny's extensive archiving help.
Any other relevant historic reference materials, know to the Isely clan and its descendants, from the family's legacy, may well be of interest to the University (Contact Special Collections, Library, Wichita State University, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67220.)
It gives me great pain, and a bit of hope (in Christ), to report to you this evening that your kinsman, Kenneth Duncan ("Kenny") Isely, of Wichita, Kansas, passed away (Sunday, August 14, 2011) at age 93, and was today (Saturday, August 21, 2011) buried, with military honors, in the company of many friends and admirers.
As a friend in recent years, and as a local aviation historian who benefitted significantly from Kenny's knoweldge and experience in the community, I was accorded the exceptional privilege of delivering his eulogy at the graveside service. It was held at 10AM, this morning, under unexpectedly pleasant weather, in Maple Grove Cemetery, where his kin are interred, just a half mile south of his lifetime home neighborhood, Fairmount.
Dozens of people attended, some who had known him only briefly, others who had known him for decades; one who had been present in his aviation career, and many who had been connected with his stellar career in ice skating -- especially remarkable given that this same day was host to the year's two largest local events in both his career/social fields: aviation and ice-skating (annual airshow, and annual ice-skating competition).
"Family," today, it seemed, consisted not of Isely or other blood relatives -- Kenny at 93 having apparently outlived all local relatives of his generation -- but the family-by-affection that had come to know and love him as their daughters' ice-skating coach (as was true of many present), the Scherich family, led by Nancee and Bill Scherich, of west Wichita, who had come to treat Kenny not as simply their daughters' coach, but as a member of there immediately family circle -- as Kenny, half-consciously, began to speak of them.
For at least a decade, it seems, the Scherer's have summoned or fetched him (or visited him) for all the major holidays, and his birthday, and checked on him religously, in his old age -- giving him a gratifying sense of connectedness, importance and meaning in his otherwise rather solitary waning years.
Following the opening preaching by the Scherichs' son-in-law, Jason (a young, conservative Christian minister), I delivered a eulogy cataloging much of his life.
The U.S. Navy had a two-man honor guard, who ceremoniously played Taps, saluted his remains, removed and folded the flag draping his coffin, and presented it to his "closest kin," Nancee Scherich, his guardian in his last feeble days, the last to visit him (the night before he passed), and Kenny's constant guardian angel for many years.
Fiercely independent until found collapsed on the floor of his home about a month or so ago, Kenny did his best for nine decades to be a burden to no one, and an inspiration to all, living in modest quarters, richly adorned with the paraphernalia of a staggering array of passionate intellectural and artistic interests, and a profoundly busy life.
Kenny's loss is painful to reflect upon, for all that I, and others, have lost in our community, state and nation, with his passing. Putting our trust in God, though, we hope he is risen to eternal reward for a life lived not in the gathering of wealth or honors, but in the sharing of knowledge, and the improvement of the people and world around him.
It is such a privilege to have known this scholar/craftsman/sportsman/chronicler of Wichita's great and legendary Isely clan. Accept my respects, at the profound loss your clan has suffered in his passing.
The eulogy that I delivered on 8/20/2011 at his graveside is attached [proceeding this text, with footnotes (bookmarked by asterisks(*) and plus-signs(+))].