WWII veteran Ken Kerford fought Hitler ... and Jim Crow
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ken Kerford remembers the goose bumps as he and his mother watched his father stand with 17 other men at the Truman Library. The 2007 celebration was to recognize Kansas City’s Tuskegee Airmen from World War II.
The older black men stood in three rows, waiting to receive replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal. Months earlier, President George W. Bush had presented the real ones in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Charles Ken Kerford was one of the honorees. At 93, he died Saturday. His wife of 73 years, Ruth Kerford, had died in October.
Ruth Kerford was recognized as one of the city’s champions of desegregation. She had organized protests against downtown stores that denied blacks service at their lunch counters.
As a member of the Army Air Corps, her husband had made his mark against racism as well.
“My dad never talked about his service,” the 63-year-old Ken Kerford said. “He also didn’t talk about the prejudice and the mistreatment.”
Instead, both his parents taught their children there are good people and bad people in the world. “The most important thing for anyone to remember is to always offer simple kindnesses,” said the son. “Injustices will be righted by waking up good people.”
Charles Kerford was born in 1920 in Atchison, Kan. In 1943 he signed up and was selected for the aviation unit of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black unit of military aviators. They showed the nation that African-Americans could fly and fight with distinction, skill and honor.
Some called that time “the Double V” — because people of color fought and won victories against Adolf Hitler overseas, and against Jim Crow laws, racism and segregation at home.
When he was 10 years old, Ken Kerford remembers when his mother organized 25 women from the Twin Citians Club to confront department stores that wouldn’t allow blacks to sit at their counters and order food. He’d wanted to go with her.
“But she told me it was too dangerous,” he remembered. “I didn’t get it. A department store was too dangerous?”
Now that both his parents have died — and he lost his wife in late 2011 — Ken Kerford is going through their things and learning a lot more about their place in their time.
They married secretly in 1939, when they were still in high school. His father enrolled at the William Institute of Mortuary Science in Kansas City and passed the state boards of embalming for Kansas and Missouri.
In 1946, after his honorable discharge, he owned the C.K. Kerford Funeral Home for 32 years. He also worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital as an autopsy technician for 29 years. Ken Kerford remembers supper conversation where his father would try to regale them with tales of a particularly interesting corpse, say, one with an enlarged liver or detached limb.
The son laughs. “My mom would tell him, ‘That’s enough now!’ And my dad would just grin.”
The Kerfords suffered when their 20-year-old daughter, Lisa Anne, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. They pushed through their pain, delighting in their two grandchildren. And they were overjoyed witnessing the election of the first black president, Barack Obama.
“They told me there was still a lot of work for us to do, though,” Ken Kerford said.
The son knows now that his father’s greatest achievement wasn’t being a Tuskegee Airman — it was his family. “They were always together,” he said. “I knew they would die within months of each other.
“My parents had 73 years of the longest unrecorded war in history,” he joked about the lively couple. “My dad always told me he never missed a peace conference, and then he would wink.”
Kerford’s most precious possession is a tattered, yellowed valentine dated 1939. It was the first one that a young Charles Kerford gave to his brand new wife. Ken Kerford found it among some papers just days ago.
“More than anything,” he said, wiping his eyes, “my parents believed in love.”
The funeral for Charles Ken Kerford is at 10 a.m. Saturday at Second Baptist Church, 3620 E. 39th St., Kansas City.