Ken Williamson, a resident of Kruse Village, an LSS retirement community in Brenham, was the subject of a “Very Special People Profile” that appeared this week in the Brenham Banner-Press. We’ve reprinted that story, written by correspondent Bud Chambers, with permission from the Brenham Banner-Press.
Oldest Texas heart transplant, Williamson loves Kruse life
In the 1941-42 school year when Port Lavaca High School was in the process of adding a 12th grade to qualify for graduation, Ken Williamson would have no part of spending an extra school year to earn his high school diploma. He then wasted no time in qualifying “to skip a grade” and finish with that school’s graduating Class of ‘42.
Turning age 16 on June 11th that year Ken joined four other classmates — with the Dec. 7, 1941 Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor still fresh on these young men’s minds — in seeking to enlist into Uncle Sam’s military service.
Temporarily disheartened when a serious hearing problem in one ear caused his ineligibility for military duty, a smart and always hard-working Ken wouldn’t let that setback hinder his efforts to seek a meaningful role in a career which would have positive benefits for this nation and its citizenry.
In search of his future, this week’s Profile subject — now seven decades removed from those difficult years in a still Depression-plagued America — would determine that a fast-growing Houston would be the best possible starting point to begin earning some money.
Ideally by obtaining work there and concurrently living with relatives in The Bayou City, Ken would be able to afford to enroll at Texas A&M University in the not too distant future.
Phase One of a mature 16-year-old Williamson’s career plan would materialize roughly as he had planned: He would find a job shortly with Foley Brothers Dry Goods, a large single-unit department store operation.
More than 70 years later , Ken — who today is recognized as “the oldest living heart transplant recipient in Texas” and one of eight in the world still alive at or beyond age 88 — fondly recalls one of his primary duties in that one year-plus with Foley Brothers involved making sure all cash registers had fresh paper rolls and other essentials for starting the business day.
Hopefully, business would be good and register supply refills would be needed every few hours. In any case, this young teenager was well known by all the store’s employees as “the cash register boy.”
Then followed Williamson’s single year of undergraduate study in a college — at Texas A&M during 1943-44 — and, then after running out of money for school, happily young Williamson would be hired for a position by then Houston-based WKM Industrial Valve Company.
During his 17 years there, Ken — with but a single year in higher education — would be recognized for his hard-work, dedication and obvious intelligence by WKM’s owner.
WKM’s chief executive — with but a third grade education himself — realized that someone’s “years spent in formal schooling” may not be a true measure of their career potential, if given further opportunity.
Thus Ken’s early position in that company’s shipping department, which included moving out giant valves needed for the operation of World War II tanker ships, would ultimately be just a starting point in what would evolve into a solid career in chemical and energy-related industrial valve sales. Indeed young valve executive Williamson’s career opportunities would be improve immeasurably in the years to follow when the Walworth Company sponsored him for a post-graduate higher education degree at MIT.
As a result, Ken’s multiple moves in increasingly more responsible roles following his initial 17 years employed with WKM into his mid-30s would take his young family to such manufacturing/sales locations as Grove Valve Company in Oakland, Calif. and forward to periods based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey prior to coming what might well be called “full circle” with an executive sales assignment be in Houston,1969.
Then his final executive position prior to retiring from a more than four decade career in valve industry sales would feature the Williamson family’s return to the West Coast.
Following over a decade as Pacific Valves’ marketing vice president, traveling worldwide through a good chunk of the 1980s from a base in Long Beach,Calif., Ken — after discovering our “Birthplace of Texas” area as a great place to settle down and call home some 16 years ago — has plenty of time (as a well-satisfied Kruse Village Retirement Center independent living duplex resident for the past three years) to sit down and calculate the mind-boggling scope of his stateside and international travels marketing industrial valves.
Williamson suggests most of the opportunities which brought about numerous business trip “all over the U.S. and the world” had come his way in the years following the Walworth Company’s recognition of his business management potential and making it possible for Ken to attend and graduate from MIT’s coveted Senior Executive Program.
“There’s not much doubt,” according to Williamson, “of the great value in my being chosen for that MIT advanced management program.
“It helped provide me several outstanding opportunities, and helped smooth out the road to a long and rewarding career in my chosen field.”
Once Ken retired and “had time to reflect on the numbers” involved in his many years of business and personal travel, he discovered the total came to having visited all 50 U.S. states and 62 foreign countries.
Heart surgery, 1991
America has witnessed both the triumphs (“A man walking on the moon”) and tragedies (the final years of World War II, plus Korea, Vietnam and more) during the 70 years of this nation’s history since our native Texan feature subject Ken — with a nearby Wallis (1926) as his birthplace — since Ken Williamson began his first full-time job as “register boy” for Foley Brothers Dry Goods in Houston.
Now in an America gaining frequent worldwide notice for its modern medical miracles, Ken— who officially retired in 1988 (at age 62) as a vice president for California-based Pacific Valves — is gaining greater public attention in his Golden Years than perhaps at any point in a long and successful four-decade period as a sales executive in industrial valves.
What follows is what one of America’s most famous radio voices Paul Harvey would certainly have called “The Rest of the Story!”
It seems Ken’s actually working life — on a day-to-day basis — would be curtailed around age 60 because of increasingly significant problems with a faltering heart.
As the benefactor of successful heart transplant surgery now a remarkable 23 years ago, Ken (and his bride of many years, Lyra Worley of Houston) would ultimately find their way from an initial retirement place in the Greater Houston area to the well-known little Washington County city of Brenham — a place that they have called “home” and increasingly grown to love over a period now approaching two decades.
Ken and Lyra would purchase a nice home on Reimer Street in 1998.
And as things would turn out, the Williamson’s new homeplace was “within easy smelling distance” of the delicious aromas escaping from a Blue Bell Creameries, Inc. manufacturing facility— still affectionately known by many as “The Little Creamery in Brenham.
Delightfully this place Ken and Lyra had found “to best suit the lifestyle of our retirement years” was located just across today’s Blue Bell Road from this good-smelling plant operated by America’s third largest ice cream products maker (as well as its national headquarters site) — and this extremely pleasant location would be called “home” for more than a dozen years until the couple relocated to Kruse Village’s duplex three years ago.
At some point between the arrival of the 21st Century and the present, this week’s very special People Profile subject would become “the oldest living heart transplant recipient in Texas.”
Today having celebrated his 88th birthday back in June, Ken is now believed to be one of just eight heart transplant recipients alive anywhere “in this whole wide world” at the advanced age of 88, or beyond.
Then dating back nearly four years ago, Ken and Lyra would make the huge decision to sell their Reimer Street homeplace — along with a longtime second home in Searchlight, Nevada, and their other major property holdings — and move into their current roomy and well-appointed two bedroom, two bath duplex in Brenham’s well-known and highly-respected Kruse Village Retirement Center.
“Becoming residents of Kruse’s duplex community has worked out far beyond our best expectations,” an extremely-pleased Ken said as our interview last week drew near its conclusion.
He continues: “We’ve made many new friends here in a rather short time, and especially enjoy their company during and after our meals in Kruse Village’s excellent dining facility.”
Perhaps best of all, “The employees here do everything for you — from all the yardwork, to changing out your air-conditioners filter and even your blown out light bulbs.”
There’s but a single downside these highly-pleased Kruse residents can name, and this one — the Williamson’s distance from their two grown children and three granddaughters — isn’t as easy as asking someone to come over and replace a light bulb.
It seems their son Kenneth, his wife Joan and their daughter, Caroline (a college senior) are all located in the Palmdale, Calif. area where Kenneth owns and operates a local radio station.
Their daughter Karen and her husband Tommy Erlanson (employed by Dell Computers) are much closer by as longtime residents of Leander — but in this busy old world “getting together with kids isn’t an easy thing,” especially with complications like both Texas granddaughters deeply involved in sports (Jacqueline, college volleyball in Kansas, and 9th-grader Rebecca already a varsity swimmer).
A further complication, especially for travel: Though Ken (one of only eight heart transplants anywhere “still living at age 88 or older”) is doing fine in that vital health category, he has fallen three times within the recent past and suffered significant back, leg and wrist injuries … and thus he speaks from experience in providing really good advice to fellow seniors; yes, even those many years younger!
“Please take extra care walking. Watch carefully where you step. And always be very aware of your surroundings.”
It’s likely unnecessary to add: Ken Williamson is planning to follow his own advice … you might even say, “He’s taken it to heart!”