Remembering Norman Kunkel


Today is the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. His death went unremarked in the wider world as he was always a loner and never cultivated a friendship circle but of course for me it was a sadly memorable event. In most ways those 10 years seem a long time ago, so much has happened in my own life since, and yet he was such an integral part of my life. It’s time to share a little of his story, both work and personal.

Norman Kunkel had turned 84 not long before his death. He’d been born in a private nursing home on Butterfield St, Herston and his parents planted a mango tree in the corner of their yard when he was born. There was always a superstitious sense that if the tree died, Dad’s days would be numbered, and yet it is still there, growing more healthily than it had done for some years. His parents were old to be having their first child in that era with his father being 43 and his mother 36. Norman would remain an only child and apple of his parents’ eyes.

29 Bally St c1930s_edited-3

This photo of the house where my Dad grew up. The photo would be c1930s as the backyard toilets are still in evidence. It’s difficult to see but there’s a horse in the foreground.

It is unusual, in this day and age, to find someone who has lived in one area for all their life, but Dad took this rather to an extreme.  With brief exception(s), he lived on the same block in Kelvin Grove his entire life, first in his parents’ home and then in the home that was built after I was born when my grandparents subdivided their land. He knew so much about the area, and the people who lived there, yet it was difficult to get stories from him – my best discoveries came when I was writing the family history of the Kunkel family.  I only wish I’d been able to extract more stories from him over the years. Mum called him “Elastic Jack” because she thought he exaggerated a yarn (common enough with story-tellers, I suppose). In retrospect it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, but when on a roll he could be very funny. He had a very particular view of his German heritage which I suspect my Kunkel research discoveries threw into chaos. I now wonder if his German surname, unchanged through two world wars, affected his and the family’s response to their heritage.

Dad’s social network as a child focused on his mother’s siblings and their children. While he may have met his maternal grandmother, Annie Sim McCorkindale, he would have had no memory of her, since she died before he turned three.  Growing up, Norman was closest to his cousin Isabelle who was only a few weeks older than him. I have many photos of the two of them together and I’m thrilled to have recently reconnected with Isabelle’s daughter, my second cousin.

Isabell Bryson and Norman Kunkel c1927

Dad with his cousin Isabelle. Both these cane chairs are still in the family.

Sadly, Dad had little knowledge of his Kunkel cousins, of whom there were many. My grandfather had had a falling out with his siblings, reportedly over religion, and only two uncles came to visit from time to time, and perhaps also their children, one of whom was lost in Korea. I suspect Dad knew more about his Kunkel 2xgreat grandparents than he shared, both frustrating and ironic given my paternal grandfather was their eldest grandchild.

Kelvin Grove State School children c1930

Kelvin Grove State School children c1930. Dad is 4th from left in second back row.

Dad attended the Kelvin Grove State School for his primary schooling. It was the closest to his home and many of the stayers in the area were kids he’d attended primary school with…handy one time when some boys threw stones at me en route home from the Catholic school. Dad was round totheir father, quick as a wink, and it never happened again. I’ve been lucky to inherit many school photos from those days. In high school he ended up at Brisbane State High School at West End. He was never a good scholar and yet he was a prolific reader all his life – a love he shared with me. A fond memory is that whenever I was sick he’d bring me special comics or books home to read.

Norman Kunkel v young

Dad in his railway uniform as a young man.

As a teenager Dad joined Queensland Railways, like his father and many other Kunkel family members. Ironically while I have staff files for many of my ancestors, there is none available for Dad as these have been destroyed. It’s likely he joined first as a lad porter but for decades he worked as a numbertaker in the Roma Street goods yard, of which more anon. He worked shift-work for many years and our family life revolved around accommodating these constraints.

There was no tennis or golf, cricket or football, in Dad’s off-duty time – he’d got quite enough physical exercise during his shift. Instead he did the standard things men did in those days: mowing the lawn, mending shoes, and keeping the yard tidy. Unlike many families of that era, there was no vegetable patch in our garden and no chook yard. I have a distant memory of Dad having to kill a chook one year (probably for Christmas) and it running around, headless. He’d have hated that as, looking back, I can see that he hated killing fish or chooks, and, only once, having to drown some kittens in the nearby creek.

Norman Kunkel

Dad and his roses – an early colour photo thanks to a family member who brought the film back from the USA.

He grew beautiful roses in the front garden, the most prolific of which was a red rose called Roundelay and one I loved that was pink striped (name?). Gerberas held a fascination for him and he grew magnificent double gerberas back when singles were the norm (oops a name pun there!). He would order them and the roses in from a nursery in Bundaberg.

Having lived near a tributary of Breakfast Creek all his life, he was familiar with the hazards of snakes and taught me early how to deal with them – a skill that proved handy many times. When I was very little we would fish in the creek but all I remember catching was the odd catfish. However, whenever we went to Magnetic Island on holidays, Dad and I would go fishing, either off the jetty or in a dinghy which he’d row out into Picnic Bay. There we’d catch delicious tropical fish like coral trout, rock cod, rainbow trout etc, and yet somehow I picked up his reluctance to having to kill them. I liked to be Daddy’s girl and go fishing, but it’s not something I’ve continued into adult-hood, for the same reason as him.

He loved the bush and he, Mum and I would often go bush-walking especially when on holidays. From him I learned the names of birds and some plants. They were special times as a family.

norm and joan at picnic bay1

My parents climbing up from Rocky Bay,

One time I came home from Girl Guides very upset about something and Dad’s advice has stuck with me down the decades “don’t always turn the other cheek”. This was so contrary to my religious education that it truly caught my attention. Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself.

Dad also shared his love of cats with me – a love that has continued throughout my life. We were never without one when I was a child, and only for one very brief period as an adult. They are a fundamental part of my well-being.

pauleen norm at picnic bay

One of my favourite photos – Dad, me and kittens on holidays at Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island

When they were planning to build the Ballymore Stadium in the 1960s, familiar to Rugby Union aficionados, Dad was up in arms battling all the powers that be. It was ironic that after it was built he became a dedicated rugby fan (helped a little by his daughter’s new boyfriend!). He was never much of a drinker, but he liked an occasional beer or whisky, which led to a funny story one day when we were all engrossed watching a game on TV and Mum moved his coffee table as she tidied.

Like many men of his era he enjoyed bush ballads and poetry and could recite some by heart.

Reading, flowers, cats, fishing, snake avoidance and the bush: all great gifts but the greatest he gave me – apart from his love – was the opportunity to have the best possible education. With mum’s committed and dedicated support, this was truly a gift that has kept on giving. It wasn’t always easy for them, with limited finances, but they made it a priority for which I’m grateful to them both.

Thanks Dad, for everything.

Why not come back to read the story of his working life, and how it contributed to his death.

19 thoughts on “Remembering Norman Kunkel

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