Kay Kendall and Rudy Haertl
by Sally Mitani
From the February, 2017 issue
Kay Kendall and Rudolf (Rudy) Haertl will celebrate their second anniversary this June. She had been living alone and on her own terms since separating from her first husband in 1982 and liked it that way. When she wasn't cobbling at Park Shoe Repair, which she bought in 1991 and sold in 2009, she was gardening or walking her dogs, Corey and Princey, around downtown. Nevertheless, after six or seven months of dating, the seventy-something Kendall told her seventy-something beau he needed "to put a ring on my finger. If I take you to my church, it is going to be as my husband."
"I said OK," says Haertl, "and we got a ring."
They were married in St. Andrew's. "Nice shtones!" the retired tile setter notes approvingly of the 150-year-old church. (Haertl came to the U.S. in 1955 but retains a juicy Bavarian accent.) He moved from his large country house in Saline into her small house on Kingsley. "I had a lot of shtuff," he says by way of apology for the large table that occupies her cozy dining room. Sharing their home is Kendall's current toy poodle, Corey, two.
Husband and wife each have childhoods they'd rather forget. "I didn't talk about the war. You don't have to either," he counsels her, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Haertl, born in Munich in 1938, says only: "It wasn't pleasant, but we made it through."
Born Kin Chung in southern Korea, Kendall lost her mother in 1951, during the Korean War. "I had a very bad childhood. I had to raise myself. Because I was so hungry, I said to myself, 'When I grow up, I'll never be hungry again!'"
Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind? Kendall and Haertl laugh. "Yes! Exactly."
Kendall met her first husband, Ron, during his military service in Korea. In 1968, he brought her back to Chicago, where they lived, childless and more or less happy. Then, after
twelve years, "I had a brother I hadn't seen since the war started," she says. "I went back to Korea to find him."
She found her brother, who had a wife and two kids. She brought him to Chicago, with the plan that in time the rest of the family would join him.
But just a few months later, her brother was hospitalized with TB. Since he couldn't work, Kendall decided to bring his wife and kids over on her own dime--an act of generosity that wrecked both her marriage and her relationship with her Korean family.
"I was so lonely for family," she says, that when they arrived "my husband felt left out." And then she had a falling-out with her brother's family, who'd expected life in America to be much easier than it was.
So "I quit everything," Kendall recalls, and came to Ann Arbor.
She had work here, running a bar with friends, but she fell into a depression so intense that she literally "couldn't hear any voices. I saw people moving their mouths, but I couldn't hear a sound.
"I had to refocus. I had done a good thing, but it didn't work. It was not my fault." She's grateful that she was able to reconnect to both her first husband and her brother before their deaths in the 2000s.
In Germany, Haertl says, "I was a plumber and a tin-knocker"--a sheet-metal worker--"but couldn't get into the union." Like Kendall, Haertl is short, robust, brimming with life, and given to spontaneous hugs.
His sister brought him to Michigan, where he found a new trade as a tile setter. In 1958, he and his first wife, Barb, "were the last people married in the [Zion] Lutheran church" at Fifth and William. The next day it was knocked down to make way for the Ann Arbor Y--where he helped set the tile. Barb and Rudy were married fifty-three years and had children and grandchildren, and Rudy nursed Barb through Alzheimer's until she died in 2011.
Compared to Haertl, "I was a really selfish person--I wanted to take care of myself," says Kendall, admiringly. A friend introduced them in 2014. And so he found himself in her kitchen, drinking roasted barley tea with honey. For the first time since his wife died, he says, "I had that warm feeling."
"When I heard the story of what he went through--he would feed her, clean her up"--Kendall was smitten: "My heart just went out to him."
But pragmatic as always, she had to think about it when he asked her to go out. "He had a lot of problems" with his back and knees, she explains, from years of tile setting. "I wanted to know he's going to live a little while!" She went with him to his doctor, and the doctor gave his blessing.
Rudy is equally admiring of Kay's ability to take care of herself: when she bought Park Shoe Repair, she had absolutely no idea how to repair shoes, but she quickly learned the trade. She also renovated a fixer-upper in Kerrytown before buying and renovating the home where they live.
"It had to be hard," Haertl says, to welcome him into her life: "All of a sudden here I come with a son, daughter, grandchildren."
"I liked the idea," Kendall counters, "because I never had it. As I was telling my girlfriend, if I'm involved with him, I have a son and daughter. That makes me feel good."
Kendall and Haertl spend their time "going to the Y three or four times a week. We go for rides. We like to go shopping. In the summertime, he helps me do the flowers," she says--Kendall's front yard explodes with flowers every year. "People tell me, 'When I walk by this yard, I feel like I walked through heaven,'" she says. She also does the gardening for St. Andrew's and the window boxes of the building near the corner of Fourth and Ann where Park Shoe Repair is.
"Your back gonna go out, like mine," Haertl warns.
"I'll do it as long as I can. I'm committed," she insists.
"I know he like to act like a macho guy, but deep down, he love to give," she adds--then laughs: "It's too bad we were not born rich, because we can't give a lot."
[Originally published in February, 2017.]
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