Honoring the Life of Longtime Columbus Resident Ken Emery

by | Feb 26, 2022

This memorial post was submitted by Emery’s son, Drew Emery. A public celebration of both Ken and Sheila Emery’s lives will be held on Monday, March 14th, 11 a.m. at the historic Hoover Hotel, 601 Main St. in Columbus

On February 9th, Kenneth William Emery passed away of natural causes at his home in Columbus, New Mexico. He was 87 years old. Ken and his late wife, Sheila Thompson Emery, were natives of New Hampshire, but had made Columbus their home since 1996.

Ken was the quintessential storyteller, so it’s fitting that the story of his life is a tale worthy of his considerable skill. Born at home August 24, 1934 in the village of Monroe, NH to William “Pete” Angie Emery and Hattie Josie Whitcher Emery, Kenny was the eldest of five, with four sisters to follow – Maxine (Sissy), Brenda, Verda and Linda. He was born into modest means during the depths of the Great Depression, but Ken’s boyhood in small-town New England was in many ways idyllic – producing an endless supply of anecdotes full of lively characters and small adventures writ large.

The family lived in a small house with well water, wood stoves, an outhouse, and a root cellar for cold storage. One of Kenny’s first chores was to fetch a giant block of ice for the cellar, little Kenny dragging it down the street barefoot, periodically standing on top to cool his feet. As a boy, he took after his dad with a love of nature, sports and the appreciation of working outdoors with his hands. Well into his 80’s, Ken was still chopping firewood by hand – for himself and for friends and neighbors.

Though a gifted athlete like his father, Ken also had an intellectual interest in countless subjects – no doubt fueled by regular visits to his Grammie Emery in St. Johnsbury, where he could spend hours poring over everything he found in the Fairbanks-Morse Museum across the street. A prodigious reader and a lifelong learner, he acquired an incredible amount of knowledge in fields too numerous to mention. After all, Kenny graduated third at McIndoes Academy in Barnet, Vermont. There were eleven in the Class of ‘52.

Now an impressive 6’4″, Ken won a basketball scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. He joined a fraternity and tried to adjust to what felt like big city life to this small-town boy – but none of that mattered. His singular passion was excelling on the court. And excel he did. By his junior year, UNH’s Ken Emery was widely regarded as one of the best college centers in New England, at one time listed eighth in the nation in rebounds.

All this came to an abrupt halt when Ken learned to his surprise that even basketball scholars were expected to attend classes. He was sent home by UNH, embarrassed. He returned to a job at the Ryegate paper mill where his father worked but quickly decided to seek his fortune elsewhere. One early morning that summer, he left his parents a letter, then hitchhiked and train-hopped – first south, then west – often stopping for weeks at a time to pick up work for food and shelter. He eventually made it all the way to L.A., staying long enough to see the Pacific Ocean.

Yet soon a new basketball opportunity lured Ken back to New Hampshire and Plymouth State Teacher’s College. There Ken encountered a certain vivacious young lady – Sheila “Beez” Thompson of Nashua. Head cheerleader and social butterfly, Sheila introduced new adventures to this handsome, shy athlete – and he was eager to have them. They were a match made in Plymouth.

A secret marriage followed during their senior year. Ken left school again to provide for his new bride and their soon-to-arrive son, Peter. They then headed west to the part of the country that had enchanted him most on his previous adventure – northern Arizona. Ken quickly landed work in the Forest Service with stints in Long Valley, Happy Jack, Sedona and Munds Park. Three more children soon followed – Holly, Sasha and Andrew. New adventures along the way cemented friendships that lasted their whole lives. Meanwhile, at Arizona Western (now NAU), Sheila pursued her master’s in education and – third time’s the charm – Ken finally secured his bachelor’s degree.

Now a family of six, the Emerys moved back East to be closer to family. In 1968, Ken earned a Master’s in Anthropology from Boston University. Then the family put down roots in Upstate New York where Ken pursued a PhD from Syracuse University while Sheila taught reading to middle schoolers. Sometimes working three jobs to support his family, Ken still kept to the simple pleasures that gave him joy – chopping wood, playing basketball and, above all else, spending time with family. He eventually accepted that, for all of his interest in anthropology, an academic career didn’t actually suit him. And yet his studies served him well, eventually leading him to a fulfilling new role leading crews conducting field archaeology for historical preservation throughout the state.

Twenty-eight years in Syracuse brought new adventures and new friends for life but it also stoked a desire for Ken and Sheila to return West where their spirits thrived most. In 1996, the kids all grown and “Mrs. Emery” retired from 31 years of teaching in public schools, they headed back to the West they loved, carefully scouting out towns that suited their eclectic interests and down-to-earth character. On that odyssey, they discovered Columbus – and were instantly charmed by its history, natural beauty, and diverse cast of characters. When they caught sight of the curious Shrine to the Perfect Man, they were delighted to discover it came with a house for sale. Thus began the chapter of their lives they each would later declare as their happiest.

For the next ten years, Ken and Sheila lived a blissful seasonal existence – Ken returning to the USFS as a fire lookout on Signal Peak near Globe, AZ and Sheila throwing herself into making new friends and serving as a docent for the Columbus Historical Society’s Depot Museum. On the mountain, Ken took long walks every morning, which gave him plenty of bear stories to relate, and even one of a golden eagle trying to carry off a young fawn from her mother. (The fawn survived). He came to know the Pinals like no other, spotted several fires from his lookout and many times advised crews on the best, safest route to a fire. Off-season in Columbus, both Ken and Sheila served on the Historical Society board and Ken became a local expert on the Pancho Villa Raid and the Punitive Expedition, often conducting original historical research that greatly enhanced the understanding of Columbus’ early days. This led to involvement with the First Aero Squadron Foundation and Wings Over the Border. His presentations and articles on Columbus’ history all exhibited his gift for story while hewing to the unvarnished truth.

When Sheila’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s cut short their mountain idyll, Ken threw himself into a new role as caregiver, soon declaring “It’s not the easiest job I’ve had, but it’s easily the best.” He meant every word. Over the course of the next decade, the disease slowly took its toll on Sheila – but it couldn’t make a dent in Ken’s devotion to her. With tenderness, commitment and grace, he had one last lesson to teach his children in the selfless manner with which he cared for his best friend, his love, his partner in adventure, his life. While they withdrew from much of Village life, their friends rallied to his singular cause – Scott, Bill and Mary, Velvet, Til and Carl, Janet, Joel and Peggy, to name a few. Most especially, Ken came to rely on caregivers who helped lift his burden and became his trusted friends – first, the late Amanda Pérez Armendariz, and then Cristina Alberto Ulloa, each of whom Sheila and Ken grew to love greatly – and who loved them in return.

This most difficult chapter of their story came to an end on July 9, 2020 when, after 63 years of marriage, Sheila finally slipped away – her Kenny holding her hand and once again singing a song he’d sung for her every night for a decade when he put her to bed. So entwined were their hearts that Ken never quite recovered from this grievous loss, though he carried the burden of his grief as nobly as any man could. He often remarked how lucky he’d been to have two strong women in his life to inspire him to be a better man – his big-hearted, sweet-natured mother Hattie, and his vivacious, strong-willed and adventurous wife, Sheila. Theirs was a love for the ages, and to the ages it now returns.

Kenneth William Emery – our beloved Dad, brother, hero and friend – truly was the Real Deal. Though an imposing figure and a powerful athlete, Dad was a man who was strongest where it counted most – with a heart steady and true to those he cared for – his wife, his children, his family, his friends. For all his triumphs and impressive qualities – his gentle, perceptive nature, his encyclopedic knowledge, his storyteller’s charm – Dad knew better than anyone that he was not the Perfect Man. No one could ever accuse him of trying to be anything but what he was – thoroughly and genuinely himself, a role he perfected with humor and grace.

Ken is survived by his four fiercely independent children by Sheila – Peter H. Emery (with wife Janine), of Magdalena, NM; Holly A. Emery (with partner Theo Kubalek) of the Bay Area, CA; Sasha L. Duffy (and husband Douglas) of Santa Fe, NM, and Drew Emery of Ronald, WA. He is also survived by two devoted sisters – Brenda Caylor of Flagstaff, AZ and Linda MacIver (with husband Steve) of Littleton, NH – plus seven grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. He is predeceased by sisters Maxine Graham (with husband Barry) and Verda Bailey (with partner Jimmy Walker) and brother-in-law Sidney “Buddy” Caylor.

A public celebration of both Ken and Sheila Emery’s lives will be held on Monday, March 14th, 11 a.m. at the historic Hoover Hotel, 601 Main St. in Columbus. Family and friends are encouraged to bring their stories as we rejoice in the memory of two ordinary lives extraordinarily well-lived.

Remembrances may be made in Ken & Sheila Emery’s name at the Parkinson’s Foundation www.parkinson.org or the Parkinson Research Foundation www.parkinsonhope.org.