Facing death, Pastor Kendall recalls a life well lived

The Enterprise – Sean Mulkerrin

Picture of a pastor as a young (fire)man: Before becoming a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, Thomas Kendall worked as a firefighter in Syracuse for 12-and-a-half years.

NEW SCOTLAND – It happened one morning in October, many years ago. Pastor Thomas Kendall was in the parsonage on the other side of Delaware Avenue from the Unionville Reformed Church in Delmar, preparing for Sunday’s service when his legs gave out.

He had to crawl to his study to make the call – not for an ambulance – for someone to replace him on the pulpit.

When he did arrive at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, the doctor performed a spinal tap and discovered that Kendall had Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Guillain-Barré is a disorder where the body’s immune system attacks its peripheral nervous system.

The first symptoms that occur are weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. These symptoms can increase in intensity until a person is nearly paralyzed.
When Kendall woke the next morning, the only thing that he was able to move was his head. In these cases, the disorder is life-threatening; it can interfere with a person’s breathing and, sometimes, with his blood pressure or heart rate.

It is not known what sets Guillain-Barré in motion. Nor is there a known cure, although there are therapies that reduce the severity of the illness and accelerate recovery in most patients. Pastor Kendall was not one of those patients.

He was in the hospital for seven-and-a-half-months. To this day, his hands and feet are numb.

There were times that he failed, he said, but then he picked himself up and by the grace of God, and the doctors at St. Peter’s, he got through it.

“If that's not the grace of God, then I don't know what is,” he said.

“That is why I believe in God,” he said. “I believe one thing, and that is that I can’t do anything apart from God – and I know that.”

That is how he’s maintained his faith for all these decades. “I think, more than anything, it was because I knew I needed it myself,” he said.

As of Saturday, March 31, Kendall is considered a pastor emeritus of the Reformed Church in America. Now, at 94, he can finally enjoy retirement – 27 years after after first doing so.

A circuitous path

Kendall was born in Syracuse on Aug. 13, 1923, into a Catholic family – and a very Catholic extended family; he had aunt who was a nun and a cousin who would become a priest.

Kendall’s immediate family at the time was not very religious. His mother was Catholic but his father was not, and, because of that, she was not allowed to take communion in the church. Later in life, Mrs. Kendall would become active in her son’s church, the Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination.

Kendall’s own path to the Reformed Church in America was a circuitous one. It started when he was 12 years old and was put on intermittent hiatus for the next 20 years by war, work, love, and children.

The journey began by just being a kid, hanging around his best friend’s house every Sunday.

“I guess one day they said, ‘What are we going to do with this kid? He’s hanging around here every Sunday; I guess we are going to take him to church,’” he said of the Broadwells, his best friend’s parents.

Was there anything special about that Protestant church that made Kendall want to go?

“No, there wasn’t, I just wanted to be with my friend,” he said.

In high school, Kendall was an average student. He never thought that college was an option. “In my day, you just went to work. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would go to college,” he said.

Following graduation, Kendall worked in a foundry, then as a picker at Decca records. In December, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He volunteered for the Army soon after.

Kendall was asked, if, when he was 18 years old, he understood the world and the atrocities that were taking place.“Our country was fighting,” he said, “and I felt obligated, and, I went in as soon as I could.” He was just a patriotic young man, he said.

He ended up in Florida.

Under fire

After two weeks, Kendall spotted a sign that said, “Volunteers Wanted,” and signed up.

It turned out that he had volunteered to join the Army Air Force, and was taught to be a tail gunner on the B-17 Flying Fortress.

After he finished his training, and following five days of leave, Kendall made his way to Nebraska to join his crew and pick up the plane that they would fly to Europe.

Landing in the United Kingdom, Kendall’s crew was assigned to the 100th Bomb Group, which would soon be known as “The Bloody Hundredth,” so-called for the high number of aircraft and crews that would be shot down throughout the war.

Kendall said that it was anticipated that a bomber crew would only complete 11 missions before being shot down – the Army Air Force decided that 25 missions would constitute a completed tour of duty.

Kendall flew 26 missions – he should have been credited for 27.

“I was in combat before my first mission,” he said.

Kendall’s crew had been sent on a practice flight before its first scheduled mission, when two fighters were spotted.

“Those SOBs are shooting at us,” Kendall’s bombardier had said.

As he jumped into his tail-gunner seat, the fighters were zooming past Kendall and, as they rolled over, he spotted the black cross of Germany.

Kendall’s crew was not given credit for the mission because, his superiors said, they were not on a mission. “We said that we were under attack and fought back; doesn’t that count for something? And they said, ‘No, that was practice and you happened to hit it that way.’”

“So the next day we flew our first mission, which was relatively easy, bombing guns on the coast of France,” he said.

On his seventh mission, Kendall had thought it would be his last.

His crew was sent to bomb Gelsenkirchen, Germany, a target of strategic bombing during the war.

The crew came under intense attack, and an engine caught fire. His plane fell out of formation and found itself 212 miles inside of Germany, he said. Kendall had his parachute on, waiting to be told to bail, an order than never came.

Two fighters came into view and appeared to be in pursuit of the impaired B-17, he said, but were far enough out of range that Kendall and his crew could not fire on them.

As Kendall’s plane limped along, the two fighters sped up and moved in on the Flying Fortress, only to roll over and display the Stars and Stripes. The two P-47 Thunderbolts escorted Kendall’s crew safely into French airspace.

“I said, ‘Dear God, please help us to get to France where the people like us. If I got to go out over France, I got a chance,’” said Kendall. “That was my prayer; I’ll never forget it.”

He was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, America’s oldest military aviation award.

Kendall completed his tour of duty in early 1944, and was sent to Massachusetts to train future tail gunners.

Love and work

But, in between leaving Europe and heading to Massachusetts, Kendall had 21 days of leave, which he spent in Syracuse.

On his second night home, Kendall went out with a friend, Bill. The pair walked into a restaurant, and there, sitting at a table, were two girls that Bill knew.

“There wasn't much to it,” he said. The group spent some more time in the restaurant before Kendall, in his cousin’s borrowed car, drove everyone home – Bill and one girl in the backseat, and Kendall and her friend in front.

“I said, ‘Next time we go out, I get the one in the back seat,’” he said, laughing.

Three weeks later, that girl in the back seat, Pauline, agreed to be his wife; five months later, they were wed. The couple went on to raise three daughters and a son.

One day later in the future, Kendall recounted, Bill's mother said to him, “You are a fool; why did you let Tommy Kendall get Pauline?”

The week after he was discharged from the Army Air Force, Kendall was back in Syracuse working as a security guard in a factory, but was soon laid off. He had found a job as a garbage man but, before he started, he was called back to the factory, but resigned soon after and began selling frozen food. He then went to work as a welder; his father-in-law got him the job. Six months later, he was laid off.

“This is a remarkable thing,” he said, “I had taken the examination to become a firefighter; I was too small for a cop, but I took the test for firefighting.”

Kendall was laid off from his welding job on a Wednesday and when he walked into the house that morning, he worked from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., there was a letter on the table. He picked it up and it read, “Report to the Chief of Fire, Syracuse New York on Saturday morning for appointment to the Syracuse Fire Department.”

He was assigned to Engine 17, and for the next 12-and-a-half years, he worked as a firefighter.

Finding God

It was also during that time that the spiritual aspect of Kendall’s life began to really take hold, he said. He had been going to church and would soon become an elder; he felt closer to God. He and Pauline were of the same mind and spirit about church, he said.

“And over time,” he said, “and I don’t know why, but I went down to the library in Syracuse and began looking for places that I could go to school with being out of school for 17 years.”

Kendall said that he had none of the characteristics of someone who would want to go to college – he was 35, he had a good job, a family, and he was a middling student in high school – but he found a place in Maine, the
Bangor Seminary, that accepted older students.

When he showed up for an interview, the dean said to him: “Mr. Kendall, you didn’t break any record in high school, did you?” And Kendall answered, “No, I didn’t.” But the dean admired Kendall for what he was doing, and decided to take a chance on him.

His admission to Bangor Seminary could not have come at a more crucial time, because Kendall’s faith would soon be tested – and the dean’s rewarded.
On July 11th, 1959, Kendall and his fire company lieutenant, Bobby McCarthy, were working on a crossword puzzle when the bell hit. Five minutes later, McCarthy was dead.

Engine six had come around a corner while Engine 17 was making the turn and was hit broadside. McCarthy was dead, the driver of Engine six was dead, and Kendall had been jettisoned from the rig.

He had a severe injuries to his head and back, and in two months he was supposed to be in Bangor.

Kendall went on injury leave, and to his family’s camp on Oneida Lake near Syracuse to recuperate.

He had tried for many years to become an officer; he had passed the test a number times but there was a long list that he had to wait out. He made it to number four when they threw the list out.

It was now August; he was due at seminary in September.

“What do I do; do I stay?” Kendall remembers thinking. “Everybody is saying, ‘Don’t go; you’ll be better off here; you’ve got a steady job.’” And now that he couldn’t fight fires, he could be pressed into a potentially better job, like fire inspector.

He was called one day while at camp and was told to report to the chief's office the next day; he was to be promoted to lieutenant.

“I thanked them and I walked out to the lake – and it was just as real as you and I being here – it was as if God spoke to me,” Kendall said. “What he said to me was, ‘If you can be moved to stay here, to remain here, then you are really not yet ready for what I have called you to do.’”

Fifteen minutes after he had hung up the phone and walked out to the lake, he walked back in and called and said, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to refuse the promotion. I am going to study for the ministry.”

“And people thought I was crazy. My own dad, who had lived through the Great Depression, said, ‘You are giving up that good job? You shouldn’t do that,

Tom.’ Well, I did it.”

He aced seminary.

Through it all, his family was with him.

When Kendall graduated from seminary, his best friend's mother from his youth, Mrs. Broadwell, came up to him, hugged him, and said, “I’ve always wanted a son who was a minister.”

“So she did her work for the Lord, by getting me the church,” Kendall said.

Serving God

Kendall was ordained in 1966 in the Unionville Reformed Church in Delmar, where he served for three years before moving on to the rescue mission in Syracuse for the next four.

“The Bible says, if you are faithful and you pray, the Lord will grant you the desire of your heart,” Pastor Kendall said.

When the chaplain for the Syracuse Fire Department resigned, apparently, to Kendall’s way of thinking, the Lord heard the pastor’s prayer, because Kendall stepped in to take his place for the next four years.

He would then serve as pastor in churches in Athens, New York; Schenectady; and Claverack in the Hudson Valley, retiring in 1991.

It was a short retirement.

He was soon called to serve again in the Unionville Reformed Church, where he has been for the past 27 years. But Pastor Kendall’s time now is short.

“I have no idea where I am going to be two months from now. I’m terminal – I know that – I’m not afraid,” he said, “In fact, the Bible says that it is better to be with the Lord then it is to be here.”

And with his beloved Pauline.

She died seven years ago; they had been married for 67 years.

She had been sick. Kendall brought her home on a Friday night.

That Sunday morning, he began to help her get ready for the day. As they were moving, she stopped and gripped her walker; he tried to remove her hands and said, “Let it go, honey, I’ve got you.”

Then, her legs gave out.

“Thanks be to God, I caught her in my arms and I was able to hold her as she fell to the floor – and when she did, she was gone,” he said. “I always thank the Lord that she didn't just fall like a lump, that I was able to hold her until the very last moment.”

Pastor Kendall is not afraid of what’s next; it’s only the next stop of his journey.

“The Bible says that, although the outer man is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day.”

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