Lifelong friends and family recall Ernest Kendall

Family, lifelong friends, and colleagues recall Ernest Whitney Kendall as a man of few words, yet someone to whom others listened raptly whenever he spoke because he was for them an inspiration, a sage, and, in the words of many, the hero of a lifetime.

Ever curious and engaged, Kendall was a graduate of Woodstock Union High School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California grad school, an internationally renowned geologist, an inveterate explorer of faraway places and foreign cultures, a deeply devoted family man, and a passionate amateur historian whose heart always resided in his native Vermont, no matter where his peripatetic travels took him, his beloved wife, Nancy, their four children, and six grandchildren.

It’s fitting then, in the wake of Ernest’s passing from cancer in Houston, Texas on Aug. 8 at the age of 81, that those who knew him best — his childhood friends and longtime relatives from Bridgewater, Woodstock, and beyond — paused last weekend to remember a remarkable life well lived and a person who inspired them endlessly. Here, in their own words, are their fondest memories and recollections of a man who left an indelible mark on their lives.

 

Jeanette Sawyer, President, Bridgewater Historical Society

Fellow Student with Ernest Kendall from Kindergarten through High School

“I lived at one end of town in the early years, and he lived at the other. We didn’t play together a lot early on, like all those kids in the village did, they played ball and that kind of thing. Ernest lived right across from the [Bridgewater] Mill, where his father worked. I remember him being a giant to me because I was short. He was tall and a nice-looking young man. He was always kind of my hero because he was never mean to anyone. He was an angel in many respects. He was brilliant — I always envied his having this knowledge of so many things. But he wasn’t someone who wanted people to know that; he wanted to just fit in and be a regular person, but he was very special.”

Reminded that Ernest was described as “a bad insurance risk” in the Class of 1958 Woodstock High School Yearbook, the Bridgewater native and history sleuth chuckled. “He was a little bit of a daredevil,” she quipped. “[Ernest] spent four years on the high school ski team and may have skied at a breakneck pace.” Next, touching on the years Ernest and Nancy spent volunteering with the Bridgewater Historical Society and its museum after they returned to Vermont following retirement, Sawyer continued:

“[Ernest and Nancy] lived here in his old home in Bridgewater about half the year, starting maybe twelve years ago or so, after they returned from their second time in the Peace Corps, and they became Historical Society members right away. That’s just who he was. There’s a lot of teamwork at the Society and no matter where Ernest and Nancy were — even the other half of the year in Texas or when they traveled, they would always share their thoughts. Ernest was a very quiet person, he wasn’t a chit-chatter, but he would always speak up with his viewpoint on what we were doing, and it would always be right on. All of us really respected him when he spoke and we listened carefully, because he was usually right about most everything. Not much had changed in the 50 years or more since high school.”

Noting Ernest’s love of Africa, dating back to his initial foray to Ghana with the Peace Corps in the early 1970’s, Sawyer marveled at the fact that the Kendalls went back to Africa for one last sojourn in the last months of Ernest’s life. “They had a very international worldview. The stories that came out of all their trips were often funny, but also instructive. Nancy recently told me that Ernest planned all their trips — he’d be planning them and not saying anything, and then suddenly it was, ‘Here are the tickets!’”

“We all just had so much respect for him.”

 

Linna Kendall Kite, Ernest’s Older Sister, 85

“We grew up right across the street from the [Bridgewater] Mill. When Ernest started [school] I believe it was still just a two-room school. We were there through the eighth grade, both of us. There were three grades of difference between us in school. It was just the two of us — no other siblings. Dad was the superintendent at the mill and did the fabric design.”

“Bridgewater was a nice small town back then. A lot of people lived in mill housing, up and down. It was a nice small town — the church was active and so on. My brother was active with the Civil Air Patrol in high school. He was a freshman when I was a senior. He was on the ski team for four years. Our father was very instrumental in that. Father loved to ski and so both Ernest and I skied and loved it, too. (Ernest) never played basketball, although he was certainly tall enough to do so. He went to the Bridgewater School — Jeanette Sawyer was in the same first-grade class as Ernest — and then he went to Woodstock High School.”

“My father grew up in Boston and after college he came up here in the 1920s and he was there at the mill until shortly before it closed. My father’s father — Ernest’s and my grandfather — was a conductor on the railroad and my grandmother was a milliner and had a studio in the center of Boston. Dad graduated from Lowell Tech and came to Vermont in maybe 1923 or ’24. Our mother was a Vermonter — she grew up in Taftsville, one of the Whitneys.”

“Bridgewater was such a nice place for Ernest and I to grow up. As kids, we all got together and played. There were the pickup baseball games and the easy walk to school. Ernest had such a love of history and I just thought of something that goes to the historical side of him. He gave to the [Bridgewater] Historical Society a baseball that my father had — the towns used to have baseball teams, this was back during the war and maybe before that, I’m not sure. But our father had coached the Bridgewater town team and they beat Woodstock one time and Ernest got that ball — it was signed by all the players from Bridgewater and it made a big impression on him. There was a lot of competition between the towns back then. After my father died, Ernest got the ball and took it to the historical society and now it resides in their collection. It’s a little bit of the history he was a part of.”

 

Sarah Kendall, Daughter

“My grandfather, Dad’s father, was the last general manager of the Bridgewater Mill. When my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into one of those three duplexes right up the road from the mill. That’s where Mom and Dad spent about half of each year since retirement, splitting their time between Texas and Vermont.” — Sarah

 

Nancy Kendall, Ernest’s Wife of 55+ Years

“We lived in Berkeley [while attending the University of California] during the Free Speech Movement [of the 1960s]. I was a social work student and a colleague of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who was a fellow student of mine when they started the food program in Oakland. Ernest was in graduate school at the time. It was a pretty heady time.” — Nancy

“[Ernest’s] father was in the creative part of the Bridgewater Mill. He designed the cloth, he ran the mill itself. There was a financial director, a businessperson, and then there was my father-in-law, he was the creative director and oversaw the daily operation of the mill. My mother-in-law — Ernest’s mom — was a housewife. For some years before she married, she was a secretary. Then she married and raised two kids — that’s what she did. She was a very, very smart woman, valedictorian of her high school class in Woodstock. Her maiden name was Helen Whitney.” — Nancy

“We came home every year for [the Woodstock Union High School] Alumni Day and they usually conned Ernest into being on the parade float in some form. He always helped to build the float, too. We were in the Peace Corps again after we retired, spent two years in Romania, just before we returned to Bridgewater. We didn’t have a home in Texas because we had sold it, but we still had the old home in Bridgewater and returned there to that duplex right near the mill. They’re called the veterans’ homes, because they were built by the mill for returning veterans after World War Two. When the mill went under, my mother-in-law, even though my father-in-law had been a chief over there, [the mill sold] everything and she didn’t have a pension. One of the officers of the mill arranged to make those houses available for various workers, and that’s how she got to live there. My [late] husband is one of the only ones left of the original bunch living there.” — Nancy

 

Theresa Fullerton, Coordinator, Woodstock Alumni Association, Class of 1958

 “I’ve known Ernest Kendall since back in grade school when you get right down to it. I happened to have lived way up at the end of West Bridgewater and he was in the village, but we were classmates. We all came together at [Woodstock] High School. We all graduated in the same class [of 1958]. I reconnected with Ernest in more recent years after he and Nancy came back to the area after his career with Union Carbide, retirement and their second time in the Peace Corps.”

“At one of our earlier alumni gatherings — it might have been the twenty-fifth or something like that, back in the ‘80s, we got the idea to do a big gathering every five years or so, and Ernest and Nancy were always there for that. And then everybody started to retire and stuff and we set up an annual lunch day at the [Thompson] Senior Center and they’d be there for that, too. No matter where Ernest was, he’d always come home for those gatherings. It always made for such interesting stories.”

“Ernest was a quiet, quiet man as a young person. But when he spoke he had all of our attention. And that continued all along. Nancy was great, too. They were both always great about keeping us caught up. They’d have us in stitches about some of the challenges and problems they would have in all their travels. And Ernest would always have a hand in the parade float on Alumni Day. He and our classmate Tom Dutton, who has done a lot of work on the float these last years. Bruce Gould, too, was another friend of Ernest’s. He was class president our senior year. He’ll be at our annual dinner this weekend. We’ll all miss Ernest. It’s been really interesting, even though we’ve lost quite a few of our class members.”

 

Carol Whitney, Ernest’s Cousin, Retired Math Teacher, Hartford Schools

“Our mom — Ernest’s aunt — was the oldest [child] in our family and my dad was the youngest, so I was a good bit younger than Ernest and Linna. Their mother, my Aunt Helen, was an interesting person in her own right. She had to apply to go to high school. This was back in a time when women didn’t automatically go to high school, so she had to apply. And she graduated valedictorian of her class, probably around 1920. She was an impressive lady and she tried to bring us a little bit of class. We resisted with every fiber of our being, but she tried! I’m saying this because our branch of the family always looked up to [Ernest’s and Linna’s parents, Helen and Charles], because they always strove to do great, wonderful things and set a real standard for their family and for all the rest of us. And the children really carried that on.”

“I can remember when he was in Africa — after the Peace Corps, working for Union Carbide, I think, by that time — Ernest would tell these exotically wonderful stories of what he was doing there. I was maybe seven or eight years old and it was magical. He’d send us these trinkets like ivory bracelets and little dolls and just eye-opening wonders of another world that we couldn’t even imagine. I know that one time he had dinner with a tribal chief and there was a boa constrictor there and we all got a picture of him with this ginormous snake. It was amazing and eye-opening for this little white girl in rural Vermont. I remember Aunt Helen, when [Ernest’s and Nancy’s] son Andrew was born, and Nancy had to take her own bedding and linens to the hospital, poor Aunt Helen was verklempt about all of that and she got the vapors just thinking about it. But again, to me, as a young girl, it was just so magical.”

“[Ernest] was a magical presence in my life. And yet whenever you talked with him, he was just so down-to-earth, you wouldn’t have known how special he was. I had a sort of hero worship of him. When he was a child, he didn’t speak for a long time and there was concern that he never would. But when he spoke, he spoke in full sentences!”

“I keep coming back to that word ‘magical.’ It was always amazing to sit and listen to his stories of all the places that he had been, such as when he and Nancy went to Romania with the Peace Corps again after their retirement, to work with the Roma people. It was all inspirational, aspirational stuff. Our parents all grew up and went through the whole Depression Era thing and so none of them could go to school because they didn’t have any money. So they instilled in all of us this deep longing for an education. We never felt ourselves poor, but we thirsted for that education, the cousins.”

“The last time I really sat down and talked with Ernest was at a dinner after they returned from that final trip to Africa this past year. He just reminisced about so many things, so many fond memories of Africa. I never heard him say anything negative about it. He just loved to travel, experience new things. I remember after my dad passed, he and Nancy kind of took my mother on as a sort of duty. She was a real crazy wild woman, the opposite of my dad and a quiet person like Ernest. When dad died, Ernest and Nancy took my mom to Acapulco with them. I would have been horrified to take my mom to Acapulco — she just had way too much fun wherever she went! She had the hoot and holler and time of her life in Acapulco. That’s just the way things were with my cousins. They were wonderful to my mom and always included her in so many things. They wined and dined her at the Woodstock Inn and treated her like royalty.”

“That’s the thing about my cousin Ernest. There weren’t a lot of words, but the actions were always there, the important things were always there, and the respect, the caring, and the attention to detail. It just meant the world to us. At the end, there weren’t words, because the truth was deeper than anything we could have said. If you want to talk about lives well-lived, this man for me was truly a hero.”