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Remembering his roots

WYANET — Rob Johnson still lives in the house his grandfather was born in almost 100 years ago.

His children are the sixth generation to live in that house, and those who went before are never too far away.

Last week Johnson read the Bureau County Republican’s series about the five Eckberg brothers and all the young men from Wyanet’s King Street who served in World War II. He knew his grandfather, Kenneth Johnson, was one of the 23 young men who came from a three-block stretch of the street.

“He was actually not as young as some of those guys who went,” Rob said.

Kenneth Johnson was born in 1915 and a married man when he decided to enlist in the Navy in 1942.

“He joined the Navy in World War II with Cecil Swanson,” Rob said. “They decided, ‘We’re going to enlist instead of being drafted, and this way we can be on the same ship, and we can go through the war together.’”

But it didn’t work out that way.

“My grandpa got in the Navy and was in for a little bit of time,” Rob said. “He had trouble with his tailbone, and they found a cyst on his tailbone, and they discharged him. So Cecil spent the whole war on his own.”

The Navy sent Kenneth home, but one year later, another branch of the military got a hold of him.

“The Army drafted him and did surgery on his tailbone, and he was in the Army,” Rob said.

Kenneth was sent to the Philippines in June 1945 and was assigned to the motor pool, where he worked as a mechanic and chauffeur. Six months later, he was back home and discharged from the military Jan. 6, 1946.

Kenneth returned home to Wyanet, to Evelyn and their children and his job as an auto mechanic.

Rob was only 9 when his grandfather died in 1978, but he still has a lot of memories of his grandfather, both of what he remembers and stories he’s heard from his father, Curt.

“My dad always talked about how he never really talked about combat stuff, like all these World War II guys,” Rob said. “He had a lot of fun memories of the war, things he did with his buddies.”

After the war, Kenneth threw himself into Wyanet village life.

In the 1950s, when everyone was worried about a nuclear attack from Russia, Kenneth was instrumental in the village’s civil defense. When the village needed a rescue unit, he was instrumental in getting that started. He served on the fire department his whole life, some of the time as chief, and was also key in getting some grant funds the department needed.

Kenneth operated a garage for a living.

“Right across the street from the fire department, so he was always available,” Rob said. “He was one of those guys who could fix anything, could make stuff out of nothing.”

Kenneth also looked out for his neighbors, whether they lived next door or not.

“There was a family,” Rob said. “It was cold, wintertime, cold as can be, and there was a family from Alabama in town. The car had a rod knocking in the engine so bad he didn’t think it would make it out of town. They had a couple of kids with them and looked like they had everything they owned in the station wagon.”

So Kenneth talked to a minister and some other people, and pretty soon there was $100 to get the car running and send the family on their way loaded down with groceries.

Rob said his memories of his grandfather are somewhat limited, but because he lived in the same town, they saw a lot of each other.

“Mom and Dad always said he hung around before, but after I was born, he hung around a lot more,” Rob said with a laugh. “When he was probably close to 60 years old, he would play
hide and seek with me in the house.”

Rob also remembers stopping by Kenneth’s shop to see what he was working on.

“You might go in there and he’d have some farmer’s tractor apart in there, or he’d have the guy’s car from down the street,” he said. “You never knew what, it might be 10 lawnmowers apart in there.”

Kenneth’s been gone more than 30 years, but he’s never been far from his grandson’s thoughts.

“When I was just out of high school, my dad and I went through a car, stripped it down to bare metal and painted it,” Rob said. “Stuff like that would come up that he would have been right in there helping.”

And Kenneth has seemed ever more present with the birth of Rob’s three children, Trent, Derrick and Katelin.

“A lot of times they do stuff and I think, ‘Man, he would have really thought that was cool,’” Rob said.

There are other things. Rob said his son Trent is built like Kenneth, although not quite as tall.

“He walks like him, carries himself like him, and his cadence when he walks,” Rob said. “It’s kind of weird because it’s not a learned thing, obviously.”

Rob said some people might not be interested in where they come from.

“The older I get, the more I feel like that kind of stuff is important,” he said. “He was a good man, and I think our relatives, where we come from, in some ways say something about us.”

Rob said it’s important to remember people of his grandfather’s generation because of the way they survived the Depression, World War II and the rebuilding after the war.

“They went through so much that we can’t even fathom,” he said. “And they still came out of it as better people.

“It’s something to be proud of that they didn’t question the sacrifice, they just did it because it had to be done. And I feel like he spent most of his life that way.”

Comment on this story at www.bcrnews.com.

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