One of the earliest memories I have of Dad is on a family vacation to Hayward, Wisconsin when I was four. We’d no sooner pulled into the resort and I was already on my way down to the dock with my rod and a nightcrawler.
Dad wasn’t far behind me and coached me to cast my bobber near a cruising snapping turtle. Sure enough, that bobber started twitching, then swam away. I started reeling and the fight was on. Eventually we got the turtle in close, but just as Dad was about to grab it, the line broke.
I remember him leaning out away from the dock, steadied by one hand that clung to the railing. The other hand thrashed wildly beneath the surface in an attempt to grab any part of that turtle it could. I was in awe of how brave he was. Taking hold of the wrong end of a snapping turtle could mean the loss of a finger.
His shirt half-soaked, he pulled himself back up onto the dock, along with a fury of swiping claws, an algae and leech covered shell and a hissing mouth, bright pink on the inside that lunged and snapped shut intermittently. Though my line broke, Dad caught the turtle with his bare hands before it swam away. In my eyes, Superman and The Greatest American Hero had nothing on him. He was larger than life.
It was the same when he’d take us to the archery range. Andy and I watched in amazement as he held his bow at full draw, still as a stone before releasing an arrow…even more impressive knowing he was shooting 70 lbs of draw weight on a bow that probably had 60% let off.
Dad was strong and we knew it.
He swung a hammer all day as a carpenter working outside regardless of the conditions. I think about him heading out at 4 am to a job site in a Northern Illinois January working in the snow and wind up on scaffolding whenever someone at my work complains about the AC being too cold or the air being too dry in the office. Dad went to work despite how he felt to ensure our family had what we needed.
After busting his butt all day and week at work, it amazes me that he had energy to do anything with us on evenings and weekends; but he did. Scouts, local fishing trips, hunting, camping, hockey games, we didn’t have an extravagant upbringing, but we had a quality one laid on a foundation of time with each other.
Work is where much of Dad’s identity came from. He was a union carpenter and proud of that. I still remember boycotting Walmart stores as they started popping up. His reputation among tradesmen was widely known, not only for how solid his work was, but also his sense of humor.
In fact, it wasn’t a trip out on the town in LaSalle or Grundy counties unless Dad ran into someone he knew from work and very few of these guys had regular names. Most of them had nicknames they’d earned on a job site that just stuck through the years. As a kid, sometimes Dad would enlist me to catch his buddies off guard, like the guy who fell into the river working at the Starved Rock Lock and Dam. Dad saw him while we toured the visitor center one weekend and with no explanation, told me to go over to him and ask if he’d taken his weekly swim in the river yet. Or the tradesman he saw while we were eating at McDonald’s. The guy was standing in line to order and Dad told me to go up and ask him, “How are things going in Fargo?” I didn’t, and still don’t know what that was a reference to, but when my 12 year old self went up to him, completely unintroduced and asked him, he swore, then began laughing then started looking around to see where Dad was. Eventually I just learned to trust Dad that I wasn’t gonna get cussed out by an adult.
I learned over the years that Dad’s closest friends were the ones who could never do anything completely right.
I’ll use a hypothetical example and pick on Dad’s lifelong friend Jim Yard to illustrate the point.
Mom: It was awful nice of Jimmy to come over and help you put the railing on the deck.
Dad: Yeah, but he can’t run a trolling motor for squat.
I think he was just pleasant to his acquaintances. Close friends and family got the special treatment.
Did you know the word “sporting” has a “G” in it?
Dad didn’t. I know this because every time we went shopping, he’d always suggest we take a spin through the “Sportin’ Goods” section. We had to. It was mandatory. I think if our church back in Ottawa could have also sold minnows and jigs and St. Croix rods, he would have gone more often. Someday, when I get to meet Jesus and visit with Dad again, I think I’ll ask our Lord just how much money Dad actually spent on fishing gear in his lifetime. Dad will be right there lowballing Christ downplaying the real number, citing inflation or the Republicans in Congress or some other red herring.
Fishing was in Dad’s soul. It didn’t matter how foul the weather or how slow the bite, he’d be out there on the river bank casting for walleye, sauger, smallmouth, white bass, or soaking a bluegill for flatheads. He spent more time at the river than many of the fish he caught…which is why he had such a reputation as an angler. Many of his “river” friends in Ottawa called him Fisherman Bill.
The state of Illinois doesn’t realize this, but the Fox River from Wedron down, and the Illinois from the Marseilles lock to Spring Valley actually belong to Dad. The fish? They belong to Dad also. He couldn’t tolerate the notion of other people fishing, let alone catching along those stretches. Don’t even think about getting him going on people who kept fish under the legal limit. He took fish and fishing personally.
On a trip to Door County, Wisconsin we spent a couple days trolling with a walleye pro out on Lake Michigan. I happened to pick up a rod that had a fish on. That fish ended up being an 8lb walleye. Once we got back to the resort, Dad left to go into town to be by himself. Mom said he was pouting because he said should have caught that fish. That’s how serious he was about fishing, especially walleye fishing.
I know it hurt him to move away from Ottawa almost three years ago leaving behind friends and his beloved rivers, but we had some great times down here fishing with his granddaughter Sofia, who also appears to have the fishing bug.
Last spring Dad, Sofie and I went out to fish a farm pond. She hooked a small bluegill and as she was reeling it in, a three pound largemouth inhaled her catch. The fight was on as I handed Dad the camera and helped Sofie land her fish. Dad was so tickled to watch her excitement. He got even more tickled when he saw how big the fish was. Watch the event unfold in the video from the trip.
As Papa, his favorite thing to do with Sofie was argue.
Usually it was over snacks and who was going to share. Dad met his match in Sofie because most adults realized there was no use in arguing with Bill Kjellesvik. She kept at him and they’d go back and forth, and then ultimately retreat back into their own corners until they could reach a compromise about the frosted animal crackers or popcorn or whatever it was. Despite his ornery streak, he loved Sofie and loved spoiling her. Given more time, he would have done the same for his new grandson, our little Beau. Not even five days old, Dad told me about his plan to buy him his first gun. I’m heartbroken that the two of them will never share an experience in the field, but you can believe he’ll know the stories about Papa.
The reason Dad was able to get to know his granddaughter and still get out for a few turkey and deer hunts was because of the tireless work Mom and Andy put into taking care of him. His last few years were physically difficult for him and required round-the-clock care. Even the doctors said he needed to be in a skilled care facility, but Andy and Mom accommodated his needs at home here in Missouri. Though challenging, they expressed their love for Dad through serving and caring for him. His sisters, Karen, Jody and Brenda made multiple drop-of-the-hat trips down to St. Louis whenever their brother had one of his numerous close calls.
He lived his life the way he wanted to…which, when it came to smoking and unhealthy foods, contributed to his early passing. His Mom and Uncles passed away in their 50s and 60s and for some reason, he felt that was his fate too. In one of our many hard conversations about the matter, Dad confided that had he known he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. That broke my heart.
What about us? Mom, Andy, Beth, the grandkids…me? Didn’t he ever think that we would still need him even in his old age? I honestly think that he felt like he had done his job and that we were all good. Well, he did do his job, but we’re not all good. Just look around. There’s not a person that isn’t wishing for another day with Dad. While years of decisions can’t now be undone, we can do a few things to prolong the time we have with our families. Take a walk. Drink water. Quit smoking. Cut down on junk food. Do it for one more day with the ones you love.
I’m not quite sure what to say about Dad’s relationship with God.
I don’t know all the conversations the two had as he spent weeks in the hospital. To me, it seemed strained, tenuous and sometimes adversarial. I have no doubt he believed, but I think that belief butted up against his stubborn streak. I take solace in knowing that God judges the heart. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Dad’s heart was good and he recently reiterated his acceptance of Christ.
What else is there to say about the man who molded me into who I am today? I’m afraid words are feeble and inadequate. They can’t capture the fullness of who my Dad is. The depth is too great and the stories too many. Perhaps I’ll close by simply saying this:
If there are walleye in heaven, they are now officially screwed.