BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON -There’s a saying that goes something like, “They broke the mold when they made him”.
In a small community it may be better if the mold isn’t broken all the time. Because if we had more people with the simple beliefs of community…of business… and most importantly, family, it just may be an easier world to live in.
Robert “Bob” Kempker was one of those people to many in Fort Madison over the past decades. Bob died June 7th at the age of 84.
Bob was a husband to Barb Hunsaker whom he married in 1953. The couple had one son, Chuck, and four daughters Sandra, Debra, Sharon, and Peggy. They have 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
“He loved mom. He just adored her and that’s what makes this so hard,” said Bob’s daughter Sandy Holtkamp, who lives in Fort Madison with her husband Dave.
Bob and Barb founded Kempker Hardware in 1969 and owned and operated that business for more than four decades.
In and around southeast Iowa, when you hear the name Kempker, you think hardware. And even though that’s on the tip of the tongue, stories weave a more colorful tale of love for community and family.
“I guess through my eyes grandpa was always larger than life,” said Jason Kempker, who manages the Kempker’s Hardware in Grimes, Iowa and is one of the 12 grandchildren. “One thing that will be missed very noticeably when we get together will be his laugh.”
Bobby Holtkamp, another of the grandchildren, tells a story of a rooster call waking up anyone staying overnight in Barb’s and Bob’s home.
“He is known for his rooster call. Whenever we would stay at grandma’s and grandpa’s he would wake us up with this rooster call. He would run the house doing that call so we all new breakfast was ready.” Holtkamp said with a laugh. “We had a tribute for him and we all did a shot of his favorite whiskey and gave a rooster call.”
Dustin Kempker, the son of Chuck and Dawn Kempker, who own and operate Kempker’s True Value Rental in Fort Madison, said no one escapes the rooster call.
“We always stayed, it was nothing to just go over and stay the night at grandpa’s and grandma’s,” he said. “Bobby and I are the same age and we have a lot of cousins so we always had sleepovers. We’d sleep under the pool table if we had to. He would come down with that rooster call to get us up for breakfast. My friends would also stay with us and they all fell victim to the rooster call. And it wasn’t just when we were little. Sometimes Christmases are late nights. If we stayed there he still got us with that rooster call.”
Jason said Bob’s influence has affected his life and choices.
“He had a nickname for me – ‘Jaybird’- he always called me that,” Jason said. “I’m a third generation hardware man following in the footsteps of him and my father. They both have affected my life and the way I carry myself. I can see grandpa in dad and myself, and I hope someday my son will see that in me.”
The Kempker’s Hardware days started when Bob worked for the railroad and risked being relocated to Kansas City. Chuck said Bob didn’t want to move because he loved Fort Madison so he started the hardware store instead of making the move.
“It was pretty competitive at that time and they started this business right downtown because they didn’t want to leave this town,” Chuck said. “But this was every bit Bob’s and Barb’s business. They built this thing together.”
He said his parents wanted to raise the family in a smaller community.
“They built this business to take care of the family and at one point or another we all worked here. They have five children and we were his employees at different times.”
He said as the business grew in the community the family started to give back.
“He was the best promoter of Fort Madison,” Chuck said. “The number one rule of business is to keep politics out, so he didn’t do those things. But he would always have that conversation whether it was with the city or the chamber…whomever. If it was right for Fort Madison, he wanted to do it and he did what he could to help.”
Sandy said her parents always supported each other in growing the business.
“Mom put in just as many hours as dad did and she was always supporting him, and vice versa. If dad came up with an idea mom supported that, and if mom came up with something, dad was right there behind her. It’s something that every couple needs to follow,” she said.
Jason said one of the keys to the family’s retail success is that everyone was a customer, whether they were in the store or not.
“Grandpa treated everyone like customers. They were his number one priority of the business, but that was him. His customers were part of his business family, so everyone was family,” he said. “It’s kind of funny. You’re naive growing up and in my mind I always thought he never had any enemies. So out of the blue one day I just asked if he had any enemies and the family could only come up with one person. Right there that secured everything I ever thought about him.”
Bobby Holtkamp, owner of Holtkamp’s Floors, Decor, and Furniture in Fort Madison, said he would always go to Bob for direction.
Holtkamp started his own furniture store and then last year bought his parents’ store Floors, Decor, and More and combined the two businesses.
“I always went to him for advice,” he said. “If I’m working with a customer and something goes wrong, I think – it’s kind of cliche’ but what would grandpa do – make the customer happy.”
During the visitation prior to his grandfather’s funeral, Bobby said he heard many stories from people who had been customers or friends or volunteers with his grandfather.
“One story that sticks in my mind was when Mike Hennigar came up and told me when he was little, around 10 years old, he and his sisters went into the hardware store with a bunch of change and wanted to buy their mom a blender. Mike said they picked out the blender and took it to the cash register. Grandpa was working the cash register that day and they asked him if it was enough. Grandpa said. “It’s just perfect.” Mike said he knew they had to have been about 10 bucks short but grandpa said they had enough.”
Dustin said it was his grandfather’s approach to life that will be his legacy.
“I guess his biggest impact on me would be his attitude. He was never not in a good mood. He always brought that undertone everywhere he was. He was just that kind of person. We heard several comments that he never met a person he didn’t like and vice versa. He really was happy go lucky,” he said.
“He was a social butterfly. He needed to talk to people, business was secondary to him. His customers were his friends and business just kind of happened. He was just happy talking to people whomever it was and if he sold some stuff along the way… then he sold some stuff.”
YMCA Executive Director Ryan Wilson said he got to know the Kempkers from being friends with the grandchildren.
“I got to know Bob through being good buddies with his grandkids, Dustin Kempker and Bobby Holtkamp. In doing that I got to know Bob as a person who was always smiling and having a good time. My favorite thing about Bob was when I would ask how he was doing each morning I saw him at the Y. He would respond with a big smile on his face and say ‘Super’,” Wilson said.
“I got to know Bob and his wife Barb really well as they would come in every Monday-Wednesday-Friday about 6:25am to workout. A few years ago we added the TV and coffee to the Y lobby and next thing you knew, that was Bob’s favorite place to be. You could check your watch and at about 7:45am Bob would make his way to the coffee pot, fill his cup, and get HIS chair.”
One of the staples of the Kempker household was card parties. Chuck said his parents had a group of couples they would play cards with for the past forty or fifty years.
“I think there’s only one man left in that group now,” he said.
Sandy said her parents would either host the parties and the kids would play games in other rooms, or her parents would take them to the homes of other group members and they would play there while the adults played cards. Her dad was also involved with local 4-H groups and had a bowling team that frequented local lanes.
“I think they mostly played Euchre. They tried different things at times but that was one of their real joys, building those friendships over time,” she said.
She said Bob and her mother have taught them the value of people and community.
“They did wonderful bringing us kids up and they’ve taught us about people …about being kind to everybody and helping the community,” she said. “He just loved people – smiled all the time. Not a bad bone in his body and he really, really loved making sure there were things for the children to do. He was so excited when the Baxter Sports Complex opened up.”