Obituary of Kenneth James Willmot
(Italian for “Always Forward” from one of Dad’s
favorite shows: The Curse of Oak Island)
Kenneth Willmot—our dad. Passed quietly in a private room at the new senior living facility, BrightView, in Herndon, VA that he just moved into at the end of March. It was the morning of Friday, May 12, 2023 which was one heck of a numeration for this math major from the University of Pittsburgh. More on that later.
Born in Homestead, just outside of Pittsburgh, Ken grew up with his mom, dad, and older brother (Freda, Gilbert, and Bill) and attended St. Thomas Catholic High School. After meeting our mom at the University of Pittsburgh, Ken and Geraldine (Gerri) DeArdo soon married on August 12th, 1961 and began to expand the Willmot branch with the introduction of their four children—Cheryl, Tim, Jeff, and Becky. The center of Ken’s life was his family. He also loved the outdoors (walking, hiking, spelunking, canoeing, white water rafting) and endlessly imparted his knowledge and respect for the interconnected lessons that Mother Earth gave to us as her stewards. He was ahead of his time and contemporaries by adopting a ferocious no-smoking policy, encouraging and organizing roadside pickup of discarded beer and soda cans to be sold as scrap metal long before organized recycling existed, and by having one of his first cars sent back to the dealership for seatbelts to be installed in the back seat for his children which he also insisted be worn before the car would even back out of the driveway at which time he would utter the famous words: “We’re off like a herd of turtles”.
Married for 62 years, Ken was fortunate to have, love, influence, and be loved by seven grandchildren from three of his four children (Jackie, Grant, and Gillian in the Hughes clan; Jonathan, Audrianna, and Rocco in the Willmot clan; and Jasper in the Gamble-Willmot clan). To that point, all his grandchildren called him “KPa” which, when this consummate man of logic was presented with what he might like to be called by his grandchildren—grandpa?, granddad?, papa?, or something else?—he chose “Ken” and tried to subsequently spell it for the little ones. K-E-N. However, to a young and impressionable Jacqueline Hughes (his eldest grandchild) it came out “KPa”. And no one ever looked back.
Once his children grew into adulthood, moved away, and started families of their own, K-E-N kind of fell into a slump with how to and what to do with his life. You see, there were several things central to our dad’s existence—his family (as mentioned above), every roadside historical marker up and down the East Coast, the visionary quality of the original Star Trek series, amusement parks especially roller coasters, and (for being a pacifist) all books and novels about the Civil War and World War II. He was the kind of person that would pick up a book just to read a page and a half while waiting for a streetlight to change to green. An enigmatic man to purchase gifts for, if you were ever in a pinch, you just had to go to the bookstore, look for a paperback with a swastika or confederate flag on the cover and you were set. This voracious reader once answered a Trivial Pursuit final question in the history category with a short but impressive, very fact-filled dissertation from the question: What item invented earlier made its way onto the world stage when it was used on February 10, 1947 in Paris, France? Our dad responded (for the win!), “Um, let’s see…1947?!?…was the end of WWII…in Paris…where they hosted the Paris Peace Treaties… which was the official document ending World War II…and it was signed by the ball point pen!”. Back to the discussion of grandchildren, it was clear that they were an invigorating shot in the arm for our dad, renewing him, and bringing him focus once again. He used to love to take them on summer trips (referred to as GG and KPa Camp) and vacations to amusement parks all up and down the East Coast in his beloved conversion van with his life-long companion and confidant, Gerri (our mom, a.k.a. GG [for Gorgeous Grandma] to his KPa), where each day a different grandchild would be assigned “President” and imbued with the power to pick where to stop, where to eat, and what to do. To this day (and far into the future, I am certain) the older grandchildren reminisce about those trips, that Starcraft appointed van, and those wonderful memories he created with them. For a few great decades, our dad got that proverbial second lease on life and shared his love of knowledge, adventure, and explorative curiosity with his family. As the inscription on the cherry urn of his cremated remains states: A Great Dad. A Better KPa.
When Ken and Gerri purchased their summer cottage in 1978, dad discovered white water rafting on the Youghiogheny River in nearby Ohioplyle, PA and began to share the white-knuckle thrill and water-in-the-face exhilaration with those around him. Although the rule was you had to be 12 to be allowed on the river, we would anxiously watch while my uncle Carmen and his friends trekked out to Ohiopyle to ride the rapids with Ken. During that time, Uncle Carmen started referring to my dad as “Captain” which was simultaneously a nautical distinction and title, a sign of respect, and a Star Trek reference to Captain Kirk. Eventually, in 1979, when the Star Trek series burst onto the cinematic scene with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Capt. Kirk was promoted to Admiral, my uncle and friends then began to refer to dad as “Admiral”. *(Sidenote: I fondly remember my dad telling me I needed to skip school on Friday, June 4th, 1982 as a senior in high school to attend the afternoon premiere of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with him. As a student, I never skipped a day of school (or college) in my life! Yet, for him that film was a passion, an item central to his life, and so we went together, and I knew (even at the time) that I would never forget it. And so, this coming June 1st  I will pass down the tradition by again skipping school, this time as a high school TEACHER, to go to King’s Dominion Amusement Park with my daughter for her 5th grade graduation from elementary to middle school. It will also be the first amusement park we attend as we embrace and continue the list of items central to OUR lives now. Thanks for that memory, dad!—the permission, the dedication, and for showing me what was important—spending time with your family).
So, pushing ahead, in 2012 KPa started another rekindling of family and influence with a separate batch of third-lease-on-life grandchildren who he came to know and love and spend time with at the last true residence where Ken lived which was on Princeton Lane. It was the only home these third-lease grandchildren ever associated with their grandparents, and as they wished bon voyage to their beloved grandfather last week—May 12th, 2023 or 05-12-2023, or 5-12-23. We recognized the house number of Princeton Lane was 1223 and that was the date and year of his death. Was the math major trying to tell us something?
Throughout his last weeks, dad was not really talking but rather sharing utterances with family members, and he kept coming back to three phrases: “I don’t know what to do.”, “I don’t know how to do it.”, and “I just can’t figure it out.” I believe his logic refused to yield to a more divine and greater intuition/emotion. Throughout those last weeks, he was surrounded by loved ones and given every sort of “permission” to see who/what was out there. We said things like, “Do whatever you think is best, Dad. Everything here is taken care of, Dad; everyone here will be taken care of, Dad. We will be sure to take care of mom, for you, Dad. Everything is alright, Dad.”, and yet he still held on to his sarcastic and sardonic sense of humor.
We once told him, “You can let go and visit that place where time and space have no meaning, Dad. Just use your mind.” He scoffed back, “Yeah. I don’t think I have one left.”
When questioned, “Hey, Dad! What do you need? What can I get for you, Dad?” He quipped, “A new body.”
When asked if he wanted to leave the hospital, he wryly retorted, “Well, I really don’t think I have the physical strength.”
If encouraged that he could (jokingly) get up and go dancing, he remarked, “Yeah. Right!” and rolled his eyes.
On two separate occasions when asked if he was seeing or talking to his brother, Bill (b. 3/2/23 d. 1/1/04), whom he would sometimes call out to, he responded, “No. I don’t believe so” or “Well, not to my knowledge.”
I asked him the week before passing if he thought anyone would be there waiting for him. He said pointedly, “Oh, that’s a bunch of nonsense.”
“Really?”, I asked. “Well, will you be there for me?”
“YES.”, he blurted out with some indignance.
“Well then you should think that someone will be there for you, right?”
“Not for an old fart like me,” he said. Which made me laugh pretty darn hard, I must admit. Ken was Ken right to the end.
In the days leading up, we filled his room with the long-forgotten favorite, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, which he loved, and we realized we knew almost all the lyrics to, and boy are those lyrics moving and profound. We were all there in body, mind, and spirit with him.
Friday morning, May 12th, Cheryl and I arrived at their new senior living facility in Herndon, Virginia where he spent his last days in hospice care. Over the previous weekend, Cheryl and I transported all his personal items and stuff from his dresser out of their house in Pennsylvania to the facility in Virginia, but it did not feel right to have his things at the house if he was still in the hospital. He transferred from the hospital to BrightView on Sunday, yet we organized and arrived to deliver his belongings on that Friday. That morning Cheryl texted at 9:39am, “It’s strangely calm, but maybe not, this morning. I’m the one who can’t figure this out now.” To which I texted, “I’m heading over soon. I don’t know what to do either. See when we get there I suppose.” You see, we were in that final phase where every phone call made you jump, every text was “the one”, and the hours dragged like days in some suspended, time-loop animation episode from Star Trek itself. Once on site though, we decided to visit mom first. Walked up, spent about 10 minutes chatting with her, then went downstairs to check on things with dad. Minutes before we arrived at his room, and I am certain he did not want to be the cause of another bedside day of waiting and wondering, Ken set sail in a remarkably simple and quiet way. He passed. Transitioned. Cheryl and I supported one another and took in the moment. How peaceful it all was. Then we walked up, calmly told mom, got her ready, and went back downstairs to see him off. That’s when mom got it so perfectly accurate when she reflected, “The Admiral has set to sea with better shores ahead of him.” How true. How undeniably true! With the thousands of interactions—good, bad, happy, sad—dad encountered in life; it only took a gentle wave to take him away.
On Friday the 12th of May, our father figured it out. He knew what to do. And how to do it. It was apropos, easy to understand, and simplistically beautiful. Sempre avanti, Dad; sempre avanti!
See you again one day. But not too soon.