Kenny G did it his way with love, resilience

December 20, 2017

Kenneth R. Grondahl, a loquacious retired letter carrier who reveled in his Norwegian heritage and earned a karaoke following as Kenny G for his soulful crooning of Sinatra songs, died peacefully surrounded by his family on Dec. 7 at Franciscan Hospice House in Tacoma, Wash. He was 88 and died of natural causes.

His karaoke showstopper was “My Way” and in his final days we played a recording of his performance of the Sinatra tune. He closed his eyes, nodded to the rhythm and smiled at the final stanza: “The record shows I took the blows/And did it my way. Yes, it was my way.”

I have written dozens of obituaries for this newspaper, chronicling the lives of the famous and infamous, and splendid nobodies with a story worth telling. This obit is different. It’s about my Dad.

Kenneth Rudolph Grondahl was born on May 5, 1929 in Seattle, the only child of Ida and Bjorn Grondahl. His mother emigrated from Norway at 19, got a job cleaning fraternity houses at the University of Washington and settled in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a Norwegian enclave.

Grondahl survived surgery for life-threatening childhood pneumonia and spent summers in the wilds of Alaska at Washington Bay, where his father operated a salmon cannery. He hired young Norwegian men and women to process the fish, and married one of them, Ida. It was a dangerous place, where fishing boats sank in storms, workers were injured by machinery and marauding bears were a constant threat. Grondahl saw his father killed in an industrial accident at the cannery when he was in his teens.

My Dad also loved to perform Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and he sang one verse with particular poignancy: “Each time I find myself flat on my face/I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

He graduated from Ballard High School, became a Teamster, drove bread and milk trucks and retired after more than 25 years as a rural letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service. He drove more than 100 miles, six days a week, over treacherous roads in all weather conditions. He leaned out the passenger window and slid letters into roadside mailboxes. He controlled the car with an outstretched left hand and left foot, which exacerbated a bad back. I never heard him complain.

Grondahl was a member of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Tacoma and volunteered as a basketball and football coach for parish teams in the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. He was a lifelong fan of the Seattle Sonics, Mariners and Seahawks. He loved fishing and boating and enjoyed more than 50 summers with his family at their beach cabin on the Puget Sound. His joy of singing ranged from performing at weddings to lead roles in musicals at the Tacoma Little Theatre.

Grondahl and his wife of 62 years, his beloved Bonnie Jean, traveled widely on cruise ships around the world. They enjoyed simple pleasures: a rum and Coke in the evening; pancakes with fresh blueberries he grew in the yard; homemade pies with wild blackberries picked at the beach cabin. They made a fuss over their grandchildren’s annual summer visits. He reveled in his grandkids’ achievements and showered them with praise. He taught them to root for the underdog, to accept people as they are and to espouse a live-and-let-live philosophy.

In retirement, he played golf with a group of senior buddies at Highland, a par-3 course in Tacoma, where he carded six holes-in-one. He earned a Master Gardener certificate and took great pride in his beautiful flowers and lush, manicured lawn. He liked to remind people that Grondahl means “green valley” in Norwegian. He spent hours watering the lawn, an excuse for long, laughter-filled conversations with neighbors and passersby. He was upbeat, a friend to all, and folks left a gab session with Kenny G with a smile on their heart.

He was a member of the Sons of Norway and believed that lutefisk and pickled herring made life a little better and that there was nothing finer for breakfast than scrambled eggs slathered with hot sauce. He appreciated the companionship of dogs and had a deep affinity for Jo Jo, a terrier he rescued from the shelter and who, it turned out, helped rescue him during the difficult final months of his life.

He was a no-fuss man and, at his request, there was no funeral service. He was interred at Gethsemane Cemetery in Federal Way. He is survived by his wife Bonnie; sons Gary (Dixi), David, and Paul (Mary); and grandchildren Sam and Caroline. He asked for donations to be made to the Tacoma Humane Society or a charity of one’s choice.

He led by example and was a study in resilience. His lessons were understated. He gave me the best writing advice I ever received. “Write from the heart,” he said. That’s what I’ve tried to do. He wrote me dozens of letters, filled with love and encouragement. He never used big words. He wrote from the heart. I saved them all.

He would want Sinatra to sing him out: “I’ve lived a life that’s full/I’ve traveled each and every highway/But more, much more than this/I did it my way.”

Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writers Institute and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at grondahlpaul@gmail.com

Update hourly