You can keep my things. They've come to take me home.
Richard Kemple was born on June 10, 1944 without a middle name. Years later, he chose Matthew, name of the money-making apostle, as his confirmation name, then decided to call it his middle name, paving the way for the iconic initials (RMK) and moniker of both his business and his football pool.
He was the youngest of six boys - two were twins who died before he was born, two were hell-raisers, the oldest resembled him greatly - just much taller. He spent his childhood doing the kinds of things kids in the 50's did in the Bronx - playing stickball, skipping school, going to church, getting into whatever trouble he could find with his brothers and friends. His father died when he was 14, and his mother died before she was 60. When the draft loomed in the mid-sixties to send young men off to Vietnam, Richie figured he might as well join voluntarily, in the hopes of attracting what might be a "better" assignment. It worked - he was sent to South Korea instead, where he worked in an orphanage and, you would think, honed the parenting skills he'd one day need. But he wasn't so talented in that department. When left alone with his first child one afternoon not long after she was born, he attempted to put a baby kimono on her, but somehow, he got her legs in the sleeves and the skirt around her neck. His wife was just grateful he hadn't accidentally strangled her.
He did get the chance to work on computers though, long before most of the world had a clue what one was. While he was at it, Richie was charming enough that he wooed his eventual bride away from a life in the convent. Well, not exactly. She'd already left, because she felt God was calling her to raise children, and Richie just happened to be the right guy with whom to pursue that journey. Over the course of 17 years and spanning the reach of three decades, they'd have six kids, all of whom he irritated, teased, embarrassed, supported, raised, and loved. They did the front load of this work in northwest New Jersey, where Richard started his own computer cable manufacturing company on a shoestring and managed to build it into a respectable player in the industry. It was successful enough that he had the freedom to eventually move the whole operation to the Sandhills of North Carolina, where it ran its course until new eras of technology supplanted the old. He was wise enough to know when to hang it up.
Somewhere in there, his oldest son died tragically and unexpectedly, and it broke him in the way that only losing a child can. He went on to open a Catholic bookstore and, for a while, sold custom caskets handmade by monks. He was buried in one of them. He had no idea one of his kids would one day also find the intersection between death and commerce.
He loved the New York Football Giants. He loved his wife, his children, his brothers, his brother-in-law, his sisters-in-law, those from his family and those from the one into which he married. He loved his nieces and nephews by blood and marriage, and his in-laws. He especially agitated his mother-in-law, but did so with great affection. In 1981, he founded the RMK Football Pool, and we all called him the Old Pool Master. He insulted everyone weekly with his email pool updates - his kids, his friends, his nieces and nephews. But of course, he did it with love - loved us all. That football pool remains a touchstone for all the cousins today, as football was more for him - and all of us - than just a game. He could be loud, knew how to party, whistled better than he sang, didn't know how to play the guitar so well but did it anyway. He faithfully attended Mass; towards the end of his life, it wasn't uncommon to see him fall asleep in the pew.
In 2006, the news came: he had lung cancer. A three-pack a day smoker, it was hardly surprising to any of us, least of all him. He had the will to live, though, and lasted longer than most of us expected. Those six kids combined have, to this date, given him a legacy of 24 grandchildren, most of whom - but not all - he got know before he died. They have some stories to tell about Papa too. One of them calls him quirky. That's a start.
A few weeks before he died, while still in the hospital, he seemed to awaken from some kind of trance, looked around, and announced to the kids of his in the room, "You're all in deep shit when I get out of here." Then fell right back to sleep.
He never could make good on that promise, at least as far as we know. We're all pretty much nothing but grateful that he gave us life, and that he left us with such a mix of funny, loving, and yes... quirky memories.
Richie and his brothers and cousins
Richie and his dad, Ally
...goofing around at their summer place
Starting a life together
With his new family
Starting a family of his own...
...that just kept growing
Listening to pontifications
Family getting bigger
With his beloved in-laws
Matt's First Communion
The family grows a little more... Christmas Eve
The first of many graduations
Lordy he was Forty
With brothers Bill and Bobby
And the wives
Last photo together on Earth - but they're together now
Going to the chapel
Watching the kids dance
And then, dancing
With Uncle Ernie who was, oddly enough, also his stepfather. Long story...
Another one gets married
...while he still has little kids of his own
With his firstborn's firstborn
Still, the family grows...
There's a bunch of them here
With grandchildren and grand-nephew
More family members...
He loved his grandchildren
There were so many of them, even then.
And they loved him.
Not even sure who this one is.
He loved Christmas.
The Old Pool Master
The Old Man reading a birthday card - well beyond 40 now
Another birthday of his - well beyond 50 now
Off again to the chapel to see one more kid get hitched
Right before Brian hits him with a pillow
Continue to rest in peace, Old Man.
Scooped me up from a pile left on the playroom floor left by Holly, my hero Daddy.
Brought laughter to my voice so many times; " I see Easter Eggs... I think the Easter Bunny was here instead of Santa Claus."
Taught me to sing at the top of my voice no matter how others judged my sounds.
Made slides in the snow and piles of leaves to play in for children and grandchildren.
Gave me permission to hate football and would bring me snacks even though I did not watch.
Welcomed my husband into your heart and life without reservation so much so that you moved our wedding date up one year ; )
Greeted my boys with, "Hello Ladies," bringing such belly laughter each and every time.
Made movies all the time and we have no doubt which ones you made.
Taught my children how to dress for Mass. How they love wearing "Papa Ties."
I recall your dreams and goals you shared with me and it was always about what you could do for others. You taught me compassion and generosity.
Our Easter eggs each year contain a Papa ugly egg. We have whistling contests to reach Papa's level. We sing loudly no matter how we sound. Tim hears you talking to him, well laughing at him, with every home repair project he does.
Every day I still see you in the corner, by my fireplace, sitting and rocking as you watched the kids play and me run around, quietly soaking it all in before you no longer could.
I always felt connected to you. In the best and worst of times. I still feel you with me, connected to me. My little ones hear stories constantly about the Papa they can't wait to meet in heaven.
I know you loved Mom, Me, my siblings, and your grandchildren with every ounce you had.
I miss having you here with me, the sound of your voice, your hugs and I am so glad I have so many memories to pass on and hold onto.
I love my life and would not have the 11 young souls here and the ones in heaven, nor this joy-filled life, without you.
Thank you, my Daddy, you are missed and you are loved!
Matt died before he could share his favorite story. But if he had one? Might have been from 1977, when he was five... when his dad took his oldest sister and him to see the Giants play a football game in their new stadium against the Cleveland Browns. No idea what his specific memories might have been, but he was thrilled... he loved the game, loved his dad, loved his sister. AND... he loved hot dogs. Lots of them. Too many of them. Dad wasn't so attuned to the fact that, well, maybe he shouldn't have given his little boy quite so many hot dogs. Matt ate a lot of them. Richard was sick because the Giants lost, 21-7. Susie didn't really get sick, she was just entralled with the whole experience. Until Dad had to pull off on the shoulder of I-80 so her little brother could vomit. Repeatedly. A bunch of hot dogs. But... what are a few hot dogs in exchange for a memory like that one?
I must have been in 8th grade and entered a talent competition (playing drums). I won the school level, then county, then regional, and went all the way to state. Dad drove me to Raleigh and there were other kids doing a lot of cool stuff. After I played, we took the drums down and put them back in the car and some people were congratulating us and telling Dad I was good.
Dad said,"He is, I just wish he played trumpet."
When we went back in to for the awards, Dad said I probably won second. They announced third (not me), then second (not me), and I could tell Dad was starting to feel bad for me.
When they announced my name for first, we were both surprised.
But Dad was really proud of me.
Mike and I went to visit Dad at the hospital during his cancer treatments. I am very socially awkward in regular situations, so I was already on edge trying to focus on being supportive and wondering how I could help. We ran into Sue there and after a couple of minutes of small talk, one of the machines behind him started beeping. Dad clicked on the call bell and a nurse's voice asked him, "What do you need?" He answered, "The dinging is donging…" and then there was no response.
Then he started pushing buttons on the machine connected to the IV, but the beeping continued so he got up from the bed to look at the machines behind him, trying to find the source of the sound (or so I thought), then started unplugging things that were connected to an electric outlet. “Stand back,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. I’m a professional.”
I had no idea if anything he was unplugging was necessary or if there was some sort of active treatment going on. I mentioned something to Mike and Sue about maybe getting someone to come or helping him sit down, but they just shrugged and let him continue. So I started to panic and said something about finding a nurse as I left the room, but being horrible with directions, I had no idea where to go. I chose to go to the right and almost ran into a robot ("Hi I'm Homer! Please don't let me get stuck behind a door" says a sticker at the top). The robot senses movement, so it stops and then I stop (to read the sticker and wondering if there is a map on it, worrying that I have yet to find a nurse and where is the room again?), then the robot moved and I tried to follow it (sneaking up since it can sense movement) and a pair of doors opened and I saw the nurse's station!!!
So I hurried to it (making Homer stop)… buuuut there was no one there or even close to it. I turned around and side-stepped a halting Homer to go back to the room so I could report that there were no nurses but instead an unhelpful robot (thinking I'd just ping-pong between the room and station? maybe trap Homer behind a door to get him out of the way?), but a nurse was already there, and the beeping had stopped.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Dad looked up groggily from the bed and said, “Nothing. These kids don’t know what they’re talking about.” And he went back to sleep.
Turns out the IV machine was warning that it had 50% battery, so she just turned the IV alarm off and left. Upon closer inspection, Dad – the professional – had unplugged a couple of lights from the wall.
Ludlum propped on his chest, the snoring. Oh, the snoring, on the couch; so loud the fireplace grill would rattle, and the TV wouldn't go loud enough to be heard. Little did Dad know how much it would turn into a game: could you smack him with a pillow hard enough to stop the snoring, but not so hard that he'd wake up? He usually didn't get mad when hit too hard... but he'd typically fall back to sleep within a few minutes anyway. Never understood how he managed to read all the books he did.
Although Richie never quite knew what to do with our kids once they reached adolescence, he was the most fun Dad when they were little…..making sure "Santa" brought them all they wished for, then spending hours assembling toys on many a Christmas eve …. of course, one had to cover their ears so as not to be exposed to all the expletives. He built “Olympic” slaloms in the backyard for sledding….over and over….there were sandboxes and swimming pools, hide and seek outside in the dark, badminton and birthday hamburgers on the grill in the middle of winter…..and then one Christmas he made his wife’s dream come true and surprised her with a piano!! The music plays on...
Ten years ago to the hour that I write this, my mother and I were by my father’s side, and he was dying. I don't mean dying in the way we all are, not in the way we mean when someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and doesn't have much longer to live. I mean dying as a very active verb – he was on his way out, moving on, leaving us behind. I wish I knew then more of what I know now, about death – that his wide-open eyes probably didn’t signify terror, but rather, eyes just sometimes do that when you’re dying… that the death rattle is just a natural thing the body does when it's relaxed and ready to give up its ghost… that he was probably more than halfway beyond this mortal coil while all that dying was going on, that he likely went a bit more gently into that good night than was obvious from my perspective. I had never heard of a death doula, but in that moment, that’s what we were – death doulas holding his hands and letting him know it was okay to go, to transition from the life he knew to the one he was about to know. Mom told him to go see Matt. That’s probably exactly who met him first.
We had a complicated relationship, Dad and me. We shared a love of football – especially the Giants. And of music, just not the same kinds. We shared very few opinions, and we often locked horns. But he certainly did teach me the value of commitment, the importance of providing for your children, how to set up a Skype account, and to never back a car angrily out of the driveway - probably the only time I readily accepted his anger with me. He also told me he loved me from within his haze of medication and pain a few days before he died, and I know he meant it. His transition from this world to the next was also a moment of transition for us. I somehow feel closer to him in death than I did in life. I think he’s getting a kick out of his Last Soundtrack. And out of mine.