Letter to the editor

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Dear editor,

I was born and raised in the city and suburbs of St. Louis. At my graduation from my large suburban high school, I sat next to people who I did not know had gone to high school with me.  At that moment, I decided that I would attend a small college. So, even though I had been accepted at all of the state universities in Missouri, including my mother’s alma mater, Mizzou, I decided, sight unseen, Missouri Valley College was the choice for me. To this day, I consider it my most important decision ever because it resulted in everything I hold dear to me: wife, children and career.

So in August 1981, my mother, brothers and I all climbed into our family’s aircraft carrier sized, lemon yellow, station wagon; heading out for Missouri Valley. Three hours later we arrived on campus and my life in Marshall, Mo., began. 

After viewing room 222 of Moreland Hall, my mother declared it unfit for human habitation. Her actual words were, “it looks like Berlin after the war.” She was not going to leave until it met her standards of decency. Today, as a proud father of four sons, I realize that my mother was trying to delay the inevitable departure of her first-born from the nest; but in 1981 as an insensitive 18 year-old, who knew everything, I could not understand why any red-blooded, American male, needed shelf-paper? After getting directions from the RA, we all loaded back into the station wagon and headed out to Mattingly’s and Gibsons. For people under a certain age, Walmart has not always been part of the Marshall shopping scene. These stores were precursors. 

It was in the parking lot of Gibson’s where I had my first encounter with David P. Kemm. We had made our purchases and as we were climbing into the car, a total stranger climbed into the front seat with us. He introduced himself as “David Kemm,” and asked for a ride across town.  Unfazed, my mother explained that while we were not familiar with town, “if he was going near Valley, she would be glad to take him.”

As we drove through town, my brothers in the backseat silently tried to alert locals who appeared ambivalent to our plight; some even appeared to be chuckling at us. In the front seat, I silently prayed that if anything happened at least our bodies be found together.  Mother, oblivious to our impending doom, chatted with this stranger as only June Cleaver, Donna Stone, or other mothers of the 50s and 60s were able.

Mother waited until David was out of the car before she addressed our collective “what the heck were you thinking” looks. She reminded the four of us of all the colorful and humorous family stories we had enjoyed from her childhood in both Chillicothe and Brookfield. “He is one of those characters,” she said. “Just like the characters of the Andy Griffith Show.”

My second year of college found me in Professor Byron Banta’s state and local government class. One requirement of the class was we had to attend every meeting of the Marshall City Council. It was here I again encountered David Kemm. Dave was a regular fixture at these meetings. None of us in the class were from Marshall, so we could not understand both Professor Banta’s eye-rolling, and the pained expressions on council members’ face each time David would rise to speak. At every meeting, this champion of the people had something to address.

“Why are police not doing something about all of the expired license plates in town?”

“Why is the mayor burning his leaves in town when there is an ordinance prohibiting that?”

“Why is there so much litter on the streets?” And so on.

Each week was a new problem, and he always had the photographs to prove it. The council never answered. While none of these questions was on the level of Watergate, to us in the class, they seemed like legitimate questions. Professor Banta would never say more to us than, “It is an example of democracy, the people taking grievances to the government. It’s what America is all about.”

Shortly before my graduation from MVC, I was hired by the Marshall Public Schools to teach social studies. As I settled in as a member of the community, my encounters with David became more frequent. I believe this is primarily because fellow teachers Russ Whyte and Dave Nelson had school secretary Stephanie Weseloh direct all non-administrative MHS calls from David to me. And with each new encounter, whether it was a phone call or car ride, my mother’s words “He’s one of those characters,” echoed in my mind. Over time, while many of you were growing frustrated with a new encounter with Dave, I came to see him as Marshall’s version of Barney Fife, Ernest T. Bass, or Gomer Pyle. He was part of the colorful experience of small-town Marshall characters that in Marshall included the family that stood on the square yelling scriptures at shoppers; to the woman who walked town complaining of the “FBI” or “aliens”; to the questionably dressed Bob Balthus. 

At best, David Kemm could be an irritating oddball, at worst, a giant pain in the neck, but he was also one of the great cheerleaders for our town. He always championed our town, whether it was in his role as perennial political candidate, or heading up the Beautify Marshall Campaign.  With the news of his passing, I am sure many may be breathing a sigh of relief that they will never have him begging rides, or causing embarrassment scenes in a public place. I myself will be a little sadder that we have lost another connection to Marshall’s past. I hope the next time you are out and about, if you see a piece of trash, pick it up and think of David Kemm with maybe a little more charity than you did in the past.

Michael Brennan



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