“Yeah, I can see the house from my window. I’m doing better now. I can drink ice water now.”
These were the last words my paternal grandfather spoke to me, said brightly and with the optimism of someone nowhere near his physical age. When I was a little kid, he seemed like an old grandfather; old-fashioned, disciplined, mature. As I grew older and he got older, I sensed that his mindset actually got younger. During that last phone call, he reminded me of a man in his early-sixties, recently retired and ambitious to live life to the fullest. Yet, he was 85-years-old and, unbeknownst to either of us, four days from his last.
Dale Kuntz wasn’t supposed to die that December day. The heart bypass surgery was a completely optional procedure and he was impatiently waiting to recover from it so he could go back to painting, teaching, and dancing. As his dance partners would later tell me at the memorial service, there weren’t many men in Peoria, Illinois who could still waltz and salsa at the age of 85, which made him a coveted lead at the senior center. In his last years of life, widowed and living alone in his small home, he befriended a veterans advocacy group that creates art to help veterans living with PTSD. This group, 22 Vet Art, became something of a second family for him, and I would get to see many photos of his time with them, exhibiting with the group and helping them build a medicine wheel garden in which he planted a Yucca plant for his late wife. I truly did not know how invested he had become in art until I visited his home in the days after his death. Every wall in the house was adorned with multiple paintings and placards informing the viewer of its title, date, and in bold letters, “NOT FOR SALE” I estimate there were over 150 paintings in his house with many more being displayed in various public galleries around the city.
As a young student, he encouraged my siblings and I to learn more about the world, and he incentivized this pursuit in a truly creative way. Biannually, he would mail my parents a sheet of thirty-to-forty tasks, which we referred to as Grandpa Kuntz Work. The tasks ranged from developing a soup recipe for $2 to drawing a portrait of Emperor Maximilian I for $5 to writing a 300 word summary of the Pastry War for $4. I remember these tasks because they were some of the many I completed. At the end of the six-month period, my parents would mail all of our completed projects to him and he would mail back a check for the amount earned, which totaled up to $150 each depending on how much we completed. For an 8-year-old with an allowance of $2 per week, this was great and was my primary source of money for many years. Looking back, I am amazed at the wisdom of such a simple idea. It is impossible to say how much this idea developed my love of learning and influenced by hobbies, but I would surmise it had a much larger impact than I will ever consciously know.
During the few days I spent in Illinois for his memorial, I probably learned as much about him from random strangers as I had learned about him during his lifetime. For other kids, he would have been a weird grandpa, but as someone with a deep interest in history, in art, and in understanding more of the world, I feel like a lot of this was passed down from him, even if I did not spend a lot of time with him or know him beyond his interests. He was a pragmatic and eccentric man, uninterested in small talk or the day-to-day of life, but invested in his grandchildren’s development from afar and that is something I have certainly come to appreciate as I have grown. Thanks, Grandpa.