Ode to old John Kirner and the memories he left behind | Whale’s Tales

I want to tell you a thing or two about an old friend.

For most of you, the name won’t mean a thing. And that’s too bad. Because if you knew John Kirner, you’d know you’d brushed up against one the kindest, and to the end, most burnished souls with whom the Almighty has ever blessed the human race.

A soul to warm cold hands over.

I met John Kirner in 1993, when I’d just begun working for the Sequim Gazette: I was about as green as a green reporter could be, and he was already in his upper nineties. He had been a pillar of the Clallam County community all of his life. When curly blonde hair still covered his head in the 1920s, he was a star pitcher for the University of Washington. Back home, he spent most of his life in the woods, swinging an axe. Later, he served several terms both as a Clallam County commissioner and as a Sequim City Council member.

Yet, when I met him, he leaned in and asked this upstart his name. “Robert,” I answered. He called me Bob. I’d never been a Bob. But Bob I remained.

From that moment on to the last time I heard it, the Kirnerian greeting never varied, never got old. It began with a few gentle profanities, and was delivered with the woodsman’s rough-hewn paw stuck straight out.

“Bob, -, -, how the hell are you?! — it’s good to see you!” said John Kirner.

John put the whole himself into his salutations, and as I remember, always offered up a soft chuckle of genuine delight. I don’t know of anyone who has ever taken more joy in people than John Kirner.

He was that way to everyone.

As I got to know the man, I recognized in him a formidable mind, undimmed by age, a body hale and sound, arms like steel. Only thing, his hearing was poor, though he didn’t seem to know it. This often led to unintended hilarities.

“Let’s go out in the alley where we can talk privately,” John would say, at the top his lungs in the alley behind the Sequim Gazette building. Privately! Ha, I was sure folks could hear him at the courthouse in Port Angeles.

I will never forget this gem, delivered — as usual at the top of his lungs — in one of the local restaurants at the height of the lunch hour.

“What, Bob, you don’t have a girlfriend?! I’ll solve your girl problems for you!” All conversation stopped, all eyes turned to us. This didn’t bother him, but I must have turned a brighter shade of red than the tomato soup in front of me.

More than that, he was a wise man, and his knowledge of human nature and politics, freely and generously given, was invaluable.

I loved the old man for all the memories he left me.

But perhaps the greatest gift John gave me was that by the day I left Sequim in 1999, when he’d already passed his 100th year, I found no hint of bitterness or cussedness in him. On the contrary, his inborn generosity and good humor had only grown, and now shone like clear water from the depths of his old blue eyes.

I’m sure you know as well as I do that this sort of graceful aging is by means universal.

We have all met bitter people, souls irreparably bent by, whatever, into grotesque forms by the ends of their days. It always depresses me. Because I know we all have a choice in the matter.

According to a story I once read about Abraham Lincoln, one day he turned away an applicant for a civil service job, because, as he told a colleague, “I didn’t like the man’s face.”

“Mr. Lincoln, you can’t do that!” said the colleague. “No man is responsible for his face!”

To which Lincoln, perhaps the canniest judge of human beings ever to live in the White House, replied: “Every man over 40 years of age is responsible for his face.”

Since my time with John Kirner, I have set a principle for myself: to be ever on the watch for any hint of bitterness that may be tempted to creep into my soul. Growing old and bitter has to be one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

As somebody once said, being bitter is like taking a poison pill and expecting the other fellow to die.

Old John Kirner showed me the better way. And for that, I will be forever in his debt.

Robert Whale can be reached at rwhale@soundpublishing.com.