World War II Veteran Celebrates 95 Years Of Life
CASSADAGA — Village resident Robert “Bob” Kennelley has seen and experienced a lot in his life. As Kennelley looks back on the day he was born, 95 years ago today, in 1926, he hits an initial realization.
“That was awhile ago,” Kennelley said.
A lot has happened in the last 95 years, especially in the life of Kennelley, who has lived on both coasts, flown and sailed across the world, all while experiencing his early childhood in the midst of the Great Depression.
As he was born on April 9, 1926, Kennelley was the seventh in a line of eight siblings. Joining sisters Dorothy, Mary, and Emily and brothers James, Bill, and Chuck, with brother Rollie on the way two years later, the Kennelley family quickly expanded, leaving a lot for their mother and father to take care of.
When Kennelley was very young, just five years old, his father, James, died in an accident at his place of employment, the Stockton Basket Factory, when he was just 48 years old.
“They were taking logs in and getting the bark off,” Kennelley said. “They used a big vat with boiling water to put the logs in and loosen the bark. One real foggy morning, he walked to work, fell in and was scalded to death.”
His father died right toward the beginning of the Great Depression, making the load of taking care of the kids a much larger burden for Kennelley’s mother, Emma. Kennelley and his two youngest brothers, Chuck and Rollie, continued to live with Emma until about a year after James died, when the burden became too much to bear with everything going on in the world.
When Kennelley was 7, he was put into a separate home Randolph, which proved to be another short lived stay. About a year and a half after that, Kennelley moved back in with his mom, who had remarried. No stranger to farm work, Kennelley helped out on that farm, selling corn and even a few other things.
“We even sold fireworks that we had left over one year,” Kennelley said.
While life had briefly stabilized, it would get thrown into turmoil again shortly after, when his mom died in 1938, also at the age of 48, like James. From there, Kennelley lived with his older sister and brother in law, on a farm in Cassadaga, where the labor was amplified.
“It was around 100 acres,” Kennelley said. “And we worked. We had to work. We had cows and four horses for power, no tractor of course. We had to plow fields by hand.”
With Kennelley’s brother in law working nights at the steel mill during the war, only available to plant things when he was home on the weekends, more work fell on Kennelley. Eventually, Chuck Kennelley was drafted, putting more work on Bob. When he was 16, Bob dropped out of high school to put more focus on the farm.
“I left school at 16,” Kennelley said. “Chuck left for the service, and here I am with all this farm work.”
Though he would get his GED later on, for the next two years, Kennelley put all his work into that Cassadaga farm. That is of course until he turned 18, and was also drafted.
Kennelley began his four years of service in 1944, as World War II was nearing its end. He was sent off to boot camp in Sampson in the Finger Lakes, and was then sent to Shell Beach in Louisiana, as he was selected as part of the Navy, which Kennelley felt was a fortunate break for him.
“I was lucky to get in the Navy,” Kennelley said. “Six out of 50 guys at my place got into the Navy.”
After learning the basics, and “shooting every darn gun they had,” Kennelley’s first placement was on a merchant ship on the Atlantic Ocean, which packed more heat than people may expect.
“The ship had a gun on the bow, a gun on the stern, and one on each side,” Kennelley said. “Who would think an old merchant ship would have guns on it?”
After a brief leave, Kennelley was back, this time on the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. Serving on a revamped baby aircraft carrier, Kennelley’s new assignment was getting loads of troops, which they did from both Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. The process of which took up a majority of the Kennelley’s remaining service time, due to the speed of the ships. He then ended up working as a PBY plane tender, where he served as a mailman travelling the world.
“We went all around the Pacific Ocean,” Kennelley said. “Our base was in Okinawa, but we went to the Philippines, Guam, China, Shanghai, and we just kept doing that. We stayed a few days in each place and then kept going. I was around.”
Kennelley stayed on the west coast until his service ended. After that, his decision was easy. “I went home.”
Following his time as a mailman in California, Kennelley went to every post office in the Cassadaga area trying to get a job upon his return.
“You think I could get a job?” Kennelley said.
Instead, he ended up taking a job at a Agway Construction Co. in Falconer, where he got laid off every winter and made $38 per week on unemployment in the down time. This grew especially challenging during his 20-year tenure in Falconer, as his life changed significantly.
In 1950, Kennelley got married to Shirley McGonegal, who he had met through McGonegal’s brother. The Kennelleys then proceeded to have five kids of their own, as Kennelley alternated between being unemployed during the winter, while going through more hard labor when he was employed.
“You worked,” Kennelley said. “And it wasn’t easy work.”
Eventually as his kids, Rae, Rita, Robert, Susan, and Gail, grew up, a lot of them ended up in Florida. Combined with the fact that Shirley also had family in Florida, as well as the two having friends in Florida, Kennelley accepted that Florida was in the cards for him. After 20 years at Agway, the Kennelleys moved to Florida in 1973, where they would stay for 44 years.
One condition Kennelley had for moving to Florida was that he wanted a job with no heavy lifting. Unfortunately, his wish was not fulfilled.
“When I quit Agway, I said I’d never get a job with all this lifting,” Kennelley said. “I went to Florida and got a job at a scale company, throwing 50-pound weights on scales.”
Hard work was something Kennelley was no stranger to, even as he started growing older. Kennelley continued hard work until he retired in 1988, at the age of 61, and the retirement wasn’t even planned.
“In 1987, I was going to work through Tampa,” Kennelley said. “All of the sudden, we ran into rain and had to break fast, when a Publix semi rear ended my pickup. I was out of work for a while. I tried to go back in 1988 but I couldn’t do it.”
There’s even a bit of irony in the type of semi that hit Kennelley. “Publix was our best customer.”
In retirement, Kennelley spent a lot of time “doing nothing.” He remained active, and embraced more of his hobbies, such as bowling and playing cards. In 1995, at the age of 63, Shirley Kennelley died after 46 years of marriage. Even after his wife’s death though, companionship was still in his future. Kennelley re-married in 1999 to longtime family friend Grace Abersold, who had married her first husband just a year before the Kennelleys had married.
Bob and Grace stayed in Florida until 2017, when they returned to their regular home in Cassadaga. Even though Bob began to go partially blind around 2001, he can still get around the house well and be somewhat active as he has his whole life, which is a factor as to why he thinks he’s lived this long.
“I think it’s the reason I’ve lived so long,” Kennelley said. “I’m the only one in my family to even hit 90.”
Having lived a life no one could describe as easy, it’s all worth it for the Kennelley family now, which remains as large as Kennelley was used to growing up. Kennelley, who grew up as a part of eight siblings, had five kids of his own, who have since grown the family to include eight grand kids, 12 great-grandkids, one great great grandchild, and a stepson, Rudy, from Grace. As Kennelley looks back and reflects on the long, challenging life he’s had, he can be thankful for all of the bowling, card parties, fireside cookouts, and most importantly, the family that has helped get him through.