My Brother John

Grand River fireplace
The Living Room

Hunkereddown in front of our living room fireplace, I braced for the headlong charge by my four-year-old little brother, John.

Suddenly, little legs churning, he darted toward me, and I gathered him up before he could tumble into the fireplace.

I guess that showed he trusted me, his nine-year-old brother.  He and his

brother Jerry, just a couple years older, both trusted me when we put together flying somersaults in that living room.

Here’s how we did it.

I’d lie on my back on the carpet, with my knees cranked up. Jerry or John would run at me, tilting upward as they slapped their hands in place atop my knees. At that instant, taking advantage of their momentum, I’d push their shoulders up, and over they’d go, landing on their feet – maybe.

Anyway, nobody ever got hurt.

And this had nothing to do with us having been with our mother over to the Ringling Brothers Circus at the State Reformatory fieldhouse in Lansing.

John Rolfe Ketchum, my youngest brother’s full name, had a lot more interesting origin than Jerry’s or mine.

John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the well-known Indian princess, in 1614.

My dad often told us that one of our ancestors, later, was named John Rolfe.

He also told us that we were part Indian, even though a minor portion. As John grew into adulthood, he acquired the nickname “Kemo.”

But that’s another part of this story.

Usually, when we were going through the gymnastic gyrations in the living room, my mother was at Supreme Court Judge William Potter’s office being his secretary. My dad was on the road for the Michigan Insurance Department and later in Detroit, and home only weekends.

Grand River House
1041 West Grand River

So who was home, keeping track of what we did, inside or outdoors?

As soon as we arrived — me, Jim, in November 1929, Jerry in September 1932, and John in January 1935 – there was at home a maid, nanny, maybe a combination of both with perhaps a smidgen of governess mixed in – looking after us.

So first there was Paula Hunt, a heavyset German woman, then Laura, her sister and a thinner version, later Paula’s daughter, Dorothy (17-year-old) a few others, then finally Karolyn, who became like a permanent member of the family.

The years 1929 through 1935 during which we three boys were born, were some of the worst of the Great Depression.  Many parents put off having sons and daughters because of the darkly clouded future. Our parents, Lola and J.C. (he preferred it over Jay) didn’t have such concerns.

In spite of unemployment in Michigan reaching 34 percent at times in those

horrendous years, both had good, and steady, jobs. They were able to give us three kids the best kind of lives.

My mother, from the early 1920s through to 1940, was secretary to W.W.

Potter as he rose from the law offices of Colgrove & Potter in Hastings to Prosecuting Attorney of Barry County, to District Attorney of Michigan, to Michigan Supreme Court Justice, and to Chief Justice.

My dad, after leaving the Navy, dug ditches for the Pattengill Stadium foundations on Lansing’s east side, later sold shoes at Max Harriman’s on Washington Avenue in downtown Lansing, and then he and my Uncle Larry had Potter’s influence in becoming an examiner in the Michigan Insurance Department.

This proved eventually to be the start of an impressive insurance career.

A story dad tells reminds us that he got this start during Prohibition.  He and Larry were examining insurance companies that did business both in Michigan and in Ontario. They used the Grand Trunk Railroad in going back and forth across the Detroit River.

It was not unusual in riding the train back to Detroit to have availed themselves of whiskey, obtained in Canada, and carried in hip flasks. As the train rumbled toward the Detroit River and the customs checkpoint, one of Uncle Larry’s hip flasks burst.

…    Customs inspections only moments away, Larry’s adrenalin carried him to the restroom at the end of the rail car, where he opened the window (you could in those days), lowered his pants, sat on the window sill, and aired everything out.

At least that’s the way dad told it.

Proof of dad’s insurance success came in 1934 when he became an officer in Great Lakes Casualty Co. in Detroit.  As a result, we moved there, starting a two-year period during which John was born—January 8, 1935.

LaSalle St House
LaSalle & Blaine 2017

Our Detroit house was a mammoth gray brick two-story monolith at the corner of LaSalle Blvd. and Blane Ave. It had five fireplaces, a spiral staircase, and in a place in one of the walls of the large living room was a panel opening to a dark mysterious passageway.

One day, Jerry, then just an agile toddler, was trying to chase four-year-old cousin Bill. But Bill ran through a gate, slamming it behind him and hitting Jerry in the forehead.

Jerry would have the scar the rest of his days.

Aunt Alice, Uncle Larry and son Bill had moved to Detroit and right next door to us.

John and I also met with accidents at that big gray house. I slipped on the ice on the front steps one winter morning, starting out for school, and suffered a concussion.  John, barely learning to walk, fell against the sharp lower edge of the newell post on the front-hall staircase.

That cut a hole in his forehead to where you could see the bone.

After all this, and likely for a better place for us boys to grow up, our parents decided to move back to East Lansing.

So, back in East Lansing in 1936, with Mom working for Judge Potter and Dad in Detroit except for weekends, our parents could be called affluent for the times.  In 1937, they purchased a summer cottage at Wall Lake, some 15 miles southwest of Hastings.

Chief Justice Potter

That first summer at the lake I was seven, Jerry was nearing five, and John  was two-and-half.

The cottage was only about 50 feet from the water’s edge and Dad, remembering fondly his times in the Navy, presented us boys with white bell-bottomed trousers and white sailor hats. He even recovered the cottage floors

with what he called “battleship gray” linoleum.

You see, at age 14, he had left home and was on the battleship Arizona. But the Navy discovered his age and sent him home. Undeterred, he rejoined the Navy at 17, and ended up again on the Arizona.

He wanted to get back in World War II as a “pay master” – his term.

One night at the cottage, Dad was working on the kitchen sink and ran into something he never encountered as a petty officer in a gun turret on the Arizona.

He was cleaning the “trap” under the sink.

Like any eight-year-old boy, I was watching with rapt attention. Jerry and John were asleep.

Unhooking that u-shaped section of pipe, Dad gingerly lifted out the brim-full trap . . . and very carefully emptied it right back in the sink, splashing onto his battleship linoleum.

Us boys surely found things different out at the cottage.

There was no indoor bathroom; just a “two-holer” out back.

Collecting firewood for the fireplace or the kitchen range? We might pick up a dark thin stick of tinder, only to have a small snake squirm out of our hand.

We learned to swim early – even John by the second summer – and found once in a while that a certain kind of snake liked to swim in Wall Lake, too.

Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 8.42.11 PM
Wall Lake

As 1939 turned into early winter of 1940, the cottage burned to the ground.

Our Uncle Harry had been living in a tent alongside the cottage.

Barely had the ashes cooled from the fire, than our parents arranged for a carpenter from Hastings to build a new three-bedroom cottage that was ready by the time school was out in June 1940.. The carpenter hired – and entrusted — Uncle Harry to install plumbing.  In a not completely surprising result, when you turned on the hot water faucet, you got cold. And vice-versa.

…..     When we came out for that first summer, our “nanny-maid-big sister” Karolyn Knok came with us and had one of the three bedrooms. We three boys double-bunked in a bedroom, and our parents had the one facing the lake. That July 21, Chief Justice Potter was killed in an auto accident.

As us boys grew older, we were very much as home on the water. There was a diving board owned by the Plough family, a couple doors west of us, and John was able perform a full forward somersault off the board Jerry and I could do a back-flip, but not that somersault.

Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 8.41.32 PM
Looking at Wall Lake’s North Shore


Almost every evening there was a softball game among folks of a great span of ages from the cottages along that north shore. It was played in a sheep pasture across the road.

Things looking a lot like cow pies appeared here and there.

In the early years of those games John was the youngest player, more than 40 years younger than some. Every time he came to bat he got slow and carefully aimed throws from the pitcher.

As told in Jerry’s Story, we had set up a high jump are just east of the cottage and spaded up a broad-jump pit just behind the cottage. Practice there probably had something to do with John years later leaping nearly 21 feet in a high school regional meet.

More than a decade of idyllic summers at that cottage came to an unexpected and excruciating end on Sunday, July 22, 1951 with the death of our mother.  John was still in high school, Jerry and I both at Michigan State.

Jack Peters, now a retired dentist and one of John’s long-time buddies, remembers the day our mother passed away. Jack and John were great kidders to one another. John had been planning to spend time with Jack and the guys.

So when John phoned Jack that he couldn’t come because his mother had died, Jack didn’t really believe John. Later, however, Bob Campbell, a friend of both, phoned Jack and said it was true.

Looking toward fall at East Lansing High School, John needed someone to live with—other than with his dad at the apartment in Detroit. So, dad arranged with Karolyn, now married and with a young son, Gary, to live in our house on Clarendon Road in East Lansing.

John stayed with Karolyn and Earl Sturk through high school.  Jerry and I were there occasionally, but we lived in housing on the Michigan State campus.

Before graduating at East Lansing, John was outstanding in track, and on the football team where John was a star running back and Peters was the center.  During this time I had taken the Sports Editor job in Dekalb, Illinois, but received a report that John gained 236 yards in one game.

In June 1953, John, at age 18, became best man at a wedding – mine with Rose.  And John was the BEST!  He helped Rose and I in carrying out a surreptitious scheme to get away from the reception without tin cans, signs or other things hanging from our car.

Not long after high school, John found himself ordered to report for the Selective Service.  As I had a few years before, he went with busloads of pre-inductees to Detroit. Unlike me, the doctors there found John had no flaws.  In fact, among 250 in his contingent taking the mental examination he scored number one.

It was no surprise, then that he was chosen for the Army’s intelligence corps.

John ended up in Germany and spent a lot time working with codes, serving much of his hitch in Bavaria. John’s widow has told me that a lot of the men in his unit there were Catholics, and that he felt comfortable in deciding to become a Catholic.

One of John’s first trips after receiving his discharge from the army was to borrow his dad’s car and drive to Elyria, Ohio where I was on the paper and Rose was a medical technologist at the hospital. Rose came off work to meet us and John gave her an enthusiastic hug!

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone too much when John considered a future in the insurance business, where his dad and brother Jerry were enjoying success.

I wasn’t hurt that he didn’t give a single thought to newspapering.

So, John decided to enroll at Oklahoma State, in Stillwater.  There, he took advantage of the university’s well-known course credentials in fire insurance, safety and protection.

Back in Michigan, while looking to capitalize on his insurance training, John found himself in Muskegon, working for a dry -cleaning company.  In 1964, When John was on a double date, Maureen Haviland was the date of the other guy, and that led to John and Maureen starting to date each other.

A bit later, John represented his company at a convention in Boyne Mountain, Michigan. That’s when propinquity seemed to lend a hand. Maureen also was there, on behalf of her company.

Then, John used a bunch of keys to pursue parental approval. Visiting Maureen in her parents’ Grand Rapids home, he eased himself onto the Haviland piano stool and had the ivories dancing for a few minutes of hot boogie-woogie.

Maureen’s mother loved it . . .and him!

John played by ear, just as his mother had, though she played a more sedate genre.

He had been inspired as a youngster to play boogie-woogie when he was out at Wall Lake.  After those ballgames, up in the sheep field, many of the younger folks flocked to Hubert and Maude Cook’s cottage, just across the narrow two-rutted road.

Up in Cooks’ living room, above their garage, the  crowd gathered around a light green upright piano where two or three of the young adults/older teens took turns hammering out boogie-woogie. The Cooks’ daughter, Marion, and Jim Plough, from five cottages down the way, added their accordion music.

It was the 1940s. No television, but fun struck some great chords.

Down below, in the garage, Hube had created sort of a boat “womb” from which the l9-foot Lightning-class sailboat he was building proved to have a gestation period of more than two years.

Hube took his time … It might have taken more than two years.

January always has been chilly in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but January 28, 1966, where and when Maureen and John were married, might have broken records.

Most of us present heard it was 28 below zero. It felt like it. Perhaps that included the wind chill. Maureen recalls that when the roses were carried from the limousine into the reception they froze and turned brown.

Not surprisingly, the betrothed, not wanting to be the befrost, hurried off to a Florida honeymoon.

The couple’s first home was in Grand Rapids, Maureen’s hometown. During those first several moy wife, Rose, and I spent a pleasant weekend with them there. I was working at the Pontiac Press during that time.

Soon, John took a job at the main office of Auto Owners Insurance in downtown Lansing and he, Maureen and John Jr. moved to Okemos, a suburb about five miles east.

As 1973 dawned, the family was about to have an addition. Then, on Jan 30, Bryan was born.  At about the same time John was applying for a job with a different insurance company.

His boss at Auto Owners was applying for the same job!

Why should anyone be surprised that John got the job – as vice president in charge of sales at Hastings Mutual Insurance Company.

That’s Hastings, Michigan – not Nebraska.

It was sort of a natural for John. Hastings was his mother’s home town, also his Uncle Larry’s, Uncle Harry’s, Aunt Linna’s and others in the family tree. He’d spent many summers at a lake a few miles southwest.

Commuting from Okemos to the new job in Hastings – about 50 miles across the midsection of Michigan – didn’t last long.

John, Maureen, five-year-old John Jr. and newborn Bryan soon moved to a comfortable split-level home on South Cass Street over on the southwest side of Hastings, a town of some 6,000 folks. Maureen says it was a good place to raise a family.

In retrospect, after 20 years, Maureen pondered how to put into words living in Hastings.

“Parochial,” she said.

The 2010 census puts the population above 96 percent white Caucasian. An owner of a restaurant in Pontiac, an Italian surnamed Fortino, remembers not being well-accepted during his growing up in Hastings.

John flourished there. He became Vice President for Sales and Marketing for Hastings Mutual Insurance Company. He was active in Rotary, Knights of Columbus, the Elks, in Civil Defense, and at the Country Club where he shot in the low 80s.

He frequently watched Maureen bowl with her. team in an informal coed league. One night Maureen’s team was short a member.  John, not really a bowler, was invited to jump in.

He stepped up, and rolled a strike . . . then another . . .another . . . and so on.

The crowd was surprised.  Maureen most of all.

Every so often, emanating from that house on South Cass, the neighbors might hear the busy “boogie-woogie” beat of “Shake-rattle & roll” as John’s fingers put the keys to the test.

There was a point at which young John Jr. had acquired the knack, also playing by ear.

Over the years, John had kept him in touch with his East Lansing buddies. Their shared interest in deer hunting led to a major project. On a hill – they said it was 800 feet high – in the northern part of the lower peninsula they built, from the ground up, a camp they called the Rack & Fin.

It was deep in the forests east of the small town of Gaylord, somewhere near the even smaller town of Atlantic.

Building that camp didn’t hurt the guys’ camaraderie any. That grew faster than antlers on a buck.  John, who had acquired – actually sort of adopted – the nickname “Kemo” — decided he’d just as soon do a lot of the cooking rather than tramp stealthily through the woods just being a “nimrod.”

Why “Kemo?” Since his namesake, John Rolfe, had married an Indian princess, he certainly could be part Indian.

John spent a lot of his younger years during which “The Lone Ranger” was popular on the radio. The Masked Man’s Indian companion, “Tonto” often used the phrase “Kemo Sabe” when addressing the guy on the white horse “Silver.”

The trek up to the Rack & Fin Club certainly was an annual thing, and one year, when John Jr. was 12, his dad decided he was old enough for some deer hunting.

John, ever the insurance executive, stopped, John Jr. remembers, in eight or nine towns along the way to check in on agents of Hastings Mutual. Maybe they arrived at the Rack & Fin by nightfall.

Back home in Hastings, there were times that neighbors might hear rising from the lower regions of that house on South Cass the strident strains of “Shake Rattle & Roll.”

John’s fingers would be putting the piano keys to a “boogie-woogie” test rather than just one finger on the trigger of a hunting rifle.

Sooner or later, that piano fortissimo would take on increased volume as

John Jr. sat down next to his dad and demonstrated the value of pop’s coaching.

Over not far from nearby Caledonia there was a restaurant known for its barbequed ribs called “Sam’s Joint,” remindful of the Country & Western song “Sam’s Place.”

It was there that John and Maureen took me and my wife, Rose, one evening for dinner. In that back roads-back woods setting we had a very pleasant time together. Rose and I had no inkling it was to be the last time we would see John.

I had the impression, however, that already he had been given a glimpse of implacably deteriorating health.

What developed, Maureen has described to me as Multiple Myeloma. Briefly, it is when a white blood cell – a plasma cell — becomes malignant. Antibodies are produced, affecting multiple parts of the body, including kidneys.

There ensued a lengthy and arduous battle against too many odds.

I can remember Maureen making it possible for me to speak by phone to John when he was in a hospital bed at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and his life was fading.

Twenty-five years later Simmey made it possible for me to speak to my other brother, Jerry, also by phone, when he was in the ICU at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and his life was fading.

How very fortunate I was, Jerry and John, to have shared those words.