Friday, October 17, 2014

Dreams from My Grandfather:
A. Leo Kent Rediscovered

In my last essay of Wednesday, I mentioned that both my grandfather and great-grandfather were railroad men. Grandfather A. Leo Kent, who is memorialized in the essay below, died in 1929.

There is a passage below on the Great Flu of 1918 that may be of interest.

This was first posted in 2010.


I have come to think that Google is an awesome thing (in spite its many flaws!).

First, by way of background: My grandfather, A. (Alfred) Leo Kent Sr., was a railroad man and a funeral director who died in February 1929, at the age of 49. My father was 9 years old and hardly knew him. A. Leo, when he died, left a 40 year old widow and six living children, as well as one infant, Robert, who predeceased him.

My Uncle Tom Kent (he commemorated in the Memorial Day postings below) left the following about him:
My father, Alfred Leo, attended Pitcher School in Detroit, then Detroit College (later the University of Detroit) where he was captain of their first football team in 1893. He left school, joined the [Michigan Central Rail Road] first as a brakeman, then an engineer on the old Bay City run. (Train engineers were the airline pilots of their day; a very high status job!) He was a Union man -- was secretary for the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Just before marrying "Jenny" O'Brien in 1910 he went into a scrap-brass business, which failed, then entered the funeral business. An affectionate (sometimes too generous) father, he was not very well during our growing-up years, dying when his eldest son Alfred was seventeen; at age 49.

My father told me the following story shortly before his own death in 1991:
Your Grandfather nearly worked himself to death in 1918 during the Great Flu--he performed hundreds of funerals in eight weeks in the fall of that year. So Jenny insisted that he take a few days' break and take a train with her to Chicago. When they arrived at Union Station in Chicago, they found, to their horror, that the station was literally filled with coffins, awaiting shipment to home towns across America. She took one look, said to him, 'This is a city of death!' They got back on the train and immediately returned to Detroit.
The picture above is A. Leo Kent. It was taken in 1925, when he was 45 or so, about four years before his death. All he needs is a set of headphones. :0)

The second pic below is the only other known to me. Doesn't do me much good, alas; it appears to be the same pic as above, just flipped and shrunk to fit the obit.

Anyway. It turns out that part of Google's (evil, copyright-violating) effort to scan every single book in the universe includes several railroad journals kept at the University of Michigan Library. I googled "A. Leo Kent" and ... what did I find?

The above pic is from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen's Journal for April 1906. My Grandfather Kent is perhaps 27 or 28 years old. Brown hair, chubby, slightly self important air. Yeah, he's a Kent.

I think this is the first "new" picture of A. Leo discovered in almost a century.

But that was not all. I also came across a few clippings of things he wrote from some articles in other issues of the journal:
LOCOMOTIVE FIREMEN'S MAGAZINE, APR. 1903: "The Charity Ball - (A. Leo Kent, Detroit, Mich.) The charity ball which was given in Detroit, January 6th, for the benefit of aged and disabled railroad men was a success in every way, and everyone who attended was loud in its praise. Thanks to Mr. Hamilton Carhartt and the Detroit Leather Specialty Co., our expenses were light. Mr. Charhartt shouldered the expense of the hall, whcih was the largest and best that could be secured, and the Detroit Leather Specialty CO. furnished the programs, which were gotten up in a very neat manner. Mr. Carhott also speaks of endowing a bed at the Home as soon as arrangements can be made. May he be blessed.

"The amounts raised by the charity ball is between $475 and $500 [about $10,000 2010$] and then there are some we have not yet heard from. I would like to say that these balls, given jointly by the different railroad organizations, have a tendency to promote a btter feeling among the men, and I believe that an effort should be made in the different secions ofthe country to work together for the Home, as more can be accomplished in that way than can be done by individual work."

He also wrote a couple of obituaries in April 1904:
"LODGE 508 - (A. Leo Kent, Detroit, Mich.) Bro. Jonn Smith, formerly a member of Wayne Lodge 508, was killed while in the performance of his duties as a fireman. He had been in the employ of the Michigan Central Railroad for the past ten years, and had just been promoted. His remains were accompanied to his home in Aila Craig, Ont., by a delegation from Wayne Lodge, where the funeral services were read by a member of the delegation. He will be long remembered in the minds of his fellow members, as one who was just and honorable in all his dealings.

"Bro. Chas. Seitz was the second member to succumb to the grim reaper. He had been a member of Lodge 508 for the past ten years, and was known from Minnesota to Louisiana as a brother whose charity to those in need was unbounded, and the members who best know him will hear of his death with sorrow. His death occurred at McDonoughville, La. The remains were accompanied to Detroit by his mother and brother, who is also a member of Wayne Lodge 508, and were interred at Woodmere Cemetery. May he rest in peace."
I should also note that a 1906 note from the same magazine commemorizes his singing to his fellow railroadmen at a lodge meeting--which is in keeping with the musical nature of the Kent family. I should also note that it has always been our family tradition, when saying grace at meals, to add the following, very Irish coda: 'And may the souls of the faithfully departed in the mercy of God rest in peace, amen!' I was always told as a child that we did this in commemoration of A. Leo Kent. I suppose, given his later profession, from 1910, as a funeral director, that it is appropriate that one of the two pieces of writing above are obituaries. Certainly the last 'rest in peace' is very Kent-like.

Now these may seem to be trifles to you all but this is the first I have ever seen of anything written by or about him other than his obit and death notice.

I have to say, I'm delighted. It's not often you rediscover something lost like this.


I've decided to add the following is an essay I sent out to some family and friends six years ago. It ties together the threads of the last few days, about A. Leo Kent, about Memorial Day, and about grief and hope.


On [Memorial Day] Sunday, I took my two older sons to St. Clair Shores, [Michigan,] the little working class town where I grew up, to watch the Memorial Day parade. We had a grand time--overdosing on ice cream and candy, and I ran into some old friends: Chris and Dennis Prost, classmates of mine and friends, along with their parents, of my father's, who still remembered him 13 years after his death. I also received some Memorial Day flags, which we waved of course. I took them back for a "memorable honor" on Monday.

I was glad we went. I had not been very joyful these last months. Back in the second week of February, we lost our last child to miscarriage, an event that remained unspoken-of but profoundly grievous to both my wife and I. This was the first 'fun' time I'd been up to in the long months since our silent loss.

The parade itself was a delight--St. Clair Shores prides itself on giving the largest, longest (and, God bless them all, tackiest) Memorial Day parade in the entire state of Michigan. It was full of wonderful absurdities -- like the enormous inflated Godzilla, the inevitable old guys in bogus-islamic Masonic fezzes on tiny motorcycles, and the go-cart Snoopy on a doghouse chasing a Red Baron around the street (someone next to me shouted 'Shoot that Fokker!' and I almost spit my coke I laughed so hard, then couldn't explain the joke to the kids).

But the high point came even before the clowns and politicians and high school bands... I never in my life thought I would ever see hundreds of people in the middle of Harper Avenue, our main drag, doing the Chicken Dance. Yeah, it looked absurdly stupid--and then I realized that the whole point of our current war was to preserve the right of our silly teenaged girls in t-shirts and jeans and fat middle aged women with small children to do the Chicken Dance in public.

On Monday, there was a more solemn bit of business to attend to. I drove out to the ancestral graveyard--Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, owned and operated for more than 100 years by the Archdiocese of Detroit.

This is a pilgrimage I do alone. The drive out is only about 20 minutes from where I live; it used to be 2 hours from my childhood address before they finished I-696.

The grave site is easily spotted; a 25' sandstone Celtic cross stands over the graves of my father, my great uncle Gerald, my uncle Al, my uncle Tom, his wife, my aunt Pat, my grandfather and grandmother and the unmarked grave of their infant child Robert, my father's brother.

Robert starved to death in 1917 since my grandmother could not produce milk and he could not digest the baby formula available in those days. My father was born with the same condition, and lived only because my grandmother's best friend wet-nursed him in her stead.

God provides.

After saying a prayer or two, I placed the little plastic American flags over the graves. The first flag was for my uncle Tom, an unassuming little man, gentle as you could imagine, who commanded and landed LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) at North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, the South of France, and finally Iwo Jima, before returning home to be cheerfully lorded over by his socialite wife... whom he had married in 1939, and never saw again until 1946.

There were giants in those days. If only we knew.

Once, shortly after the war, this stoic little man got drunk and told my mother how he landed his LST at Omaha Beach in the front edge of the second wave, and dropped the front of his ship and offloaded his tanks. Do you remember the end of the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan? All the bodies all over the beach? There they lay. In full obedience of orders, knowingly received and fully briefed to do so beforehand, the tankers drove forward, deliberately driving over the bodies of fallen American soldiers--or soldiers everyone HOPED were bodies of the fallen and not just wounded--from the first wave of the landing.

That sight haunted him all his days.

As he pulled his offloaded ship away from the landing zone, they took a German shell amidships. His little ship, not even dignified with a name, just a number, sank like a stone. His entire crew were lost. Only he survived.

To him, a flag.

A second flag was for my Great Uncle Gerald, who died before I was born. Physically, he was said to resemble the guy holding the fork in American Gothic. He too was a war vet. He fought in WWI, which is mentioned on his grave stone. What the grave stone does not mention is that he first saw combat action in the Philippines, fighting against the Islamic Moro rebellion. And it was his memories of that first combat, and not the second, that, as I understand it, kept him in a gentle state of alcoholism his entire adult life after his release from active duty, a ward of his sister, my grandmother, the rest of his days.

The third flag was for my father, a career Air Force officer, gone now, lo, these 13 years, a peaceful man who, in spite of 26 years' service, never left the States during WW2 and never saw a single day of armed combat his whole life.

I was once young and stupid and ashamed of that.

Finally, I had one flag left over. Saluting my Uncle Robert, Uncle Al and Grandfather, who never served, I saw a nearby grave of a WW2 veteran, one without a flag; I left him the last one.

I looked forlornly on my father's grave. Holy Sepulchre Cemetery allows but one large above-ground headstone per family plot; all the rest must be flush to the ground, the better to mow the lawn with, my dear. This has the unfortunate side effect of leaving the flush headstones very vulnerable to being grown over by the grass. I had to fight and rip at the sod to even reveal my father's name; the rest of it was almost invisible. (I have to go back with gardener's tools sometime soon and do the job right.)

Once I cleared Dad's stone, at least enough to make it visible, I went over to Grandfather Kent's to do the same.

A. Leo Kent Sr. was born in 1879 in Detroit, to Thomas Kent, a railroad engineer who, legend has it, was one of the many engineers who drew the Lincoln funeral train. He himself was an engineer in his youth, and later, after he married Jennie F. O'Brien, bought a home at 405 W. Grand Boulevard, Detroit, and opened the A. Leo Kent Funeral Home, which remained in business until 1960. There he raised his brood of eight kids, of whom seven reached adulthood. He died in 1929 of blood poisoning after a burst appendix; he had badly planned his final illness for an era where
antibiotics hadn't been invented yet.

He was 49 years old. My father was not yet ten.

At the time of his death, he was president of the Detroit Association of Funeral Home Directors, which accounts for the almost unbecomingly huge Celtic cross over his grave. Had he specified such a stone for himself, it would have been a monument to an enormous, indeed embarassing, ego. As it is, it is a monument to his friends' love for him, for they it was who erected the stone in his memory. For one thing everyone agrees upon: he was a wonderful, loving man, who made a fine living helping great numbers of people through the worst days of their lives.

While the great headstone is clear as to his name, and contains a quote from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), chap. 45, about how he was "beloved of God and man," there is no more information about him there. As I scrabbled at the sod overgrowing the smaller, flat headstone below, over his actual grave, my heart skipped a beat.


BORN MARCH 31, 1879

In other words, he died 75 years to the *day* before we lost our unborn son Nicholas Leo, who was to be named for him.

I drove home with head held high.

Not a sparrow falls.


1 comment:

  1. You totally have to put memorials on Find A Grave dot com!

    (I just dated myself by using "totally," didn't I?)


Keep it clean for gene.