Worth knowing: The son of a Tuskegee Airman first served his country then served this Minnesota small town
Kevin Tendall Sr. passed away in his sleep Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at age 71.
WADENA — Kevin Tendall Sr., went from flying choppers for our country in the Army to delivering the most precious packages as a school bus driver.
While his many years of jobs in the military and the government are filled with stories, in the roughly nine years that Tendall called Wadena home, he seemed to have left his mark on people wherever he went. His positive impact made it especially difficult to hear that Tendall passed away Saturday, Dec. 11, at the age of 71.
Already retired from the Army, Tendall retired once more from his job of school bus driver at Wadena-Deer Creek Schools just this summer, saying he planned to spend time watching his grandsons. He worked at the school district for about seven years and even worked as a referee before a knee injury took him from that role last February.
On his Facebook page, Tendall’s comment, posted just three months ago, about his choice to retire leaves a lingering effect now. “I can no longer carry on. I must enjoy whatever time I have remaining on this earth.” His comment perhaps alluded to illnesses that Tendall was dealing with including diabetes, those close to him said. It's also believed he was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.
He initially moved to Wadena to work at the National Guard Armory as a survivor outreach coordinator for the U.S. government. It was perhaps one of the first times he lived in a small town. Prior to that he had jobs at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Home in Minneapolis. He worked with disabled veterans reentering the workforce from incarceration. He worked as a corrections officer in a level five maximum security prison. He was an adult literacy coordinator helping people learn English as a second language. All these roles were in the Twin Cities.
Prior to that, Tendall served as Chief Warrant Officer of aviation in the U.S. Army for 28 years.
Born into a military family, Tendall's father, Thomas, was a Tuskagee Airman who served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Tendall followed in his father's footsteps and enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school.
Tendall's enlisted service covered Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces training. He served two and a half tours in Vietnam as a Long-Range Reconnaissance Specialist. After returning to the states, Tendall volunteered for drill sergeant duty, and upon completion, was assigned to Berlin, Germany as a counterintelligence agent.
Tendall was then selected to attend U.S. Army Warrant Officer Flight School and was assigned to fly medical evacuation helicopters. His additional flying assignments included general support and special forces special operations support as an instructor pilot.
Tendall retired from active duty and reserve in 1995. He and his family moved to Minnesota where he was hired into the U.S. Government Federal Service as an agent in the Minneapolis area. His wife died not long after the move to Minnesota.
With such a storied past filled with experiences, whatever led Tendall to take a job as a school bus driver in rural Minnesota is unknown to most that knew him best. He was raised in East Orange, New Jersey. But when he chose this community he immediately became immersed in it.
His big leadership role was that of VFW Post Commander around 2013-2014 at the Wadena Post 3922. He served in that role for just a year as he was also very active in other areas of the community.
“He was just an all around great guy that would do anything for you,” former Wadena VFW commander Mike Tast said.
Tendall had his time in the limelight as he performed in numerous Madhatter’s plays in roles as diverse as an angel, the devil, and a detective.
"He was good natured," fellow cast member Michelle Curtis said of Tendall. He recalls his performances and the ones he was unable to be a a part of due to his illnesses.
While Tendall was on his way out of student transportation, Curtis was going through training to fill his shoes. After two attempts at passing her test, it was with Tendall riding backseat of her that she passed the test to get her license. He was a good luck charm.
Tendall was a regular at the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center in Wadena. Even if you didn’t know the man, you may have seen his locker stood out among all others in the men’s locker room. He was the only one to put his name boldly on his locker doors.
Tendall was a contributor to the Wadena Pioneer Journal. He often spoke with the editor about his ideas for writing stories about the history of things. His most recent one was on the history of St. Patrick’s Day. His reason for writing it was because he felt people celebrated the day without any idea of where the day even emerged from. He wanted people to live intentionally. In this column we also found out that, while well known as a Black man in a community that’s largely caucasian, Tendall was 78% West Coast African, 21% Irish and 1% Chinese. What he didn’t express in his column but what came up as the topic of another column was that Tendall was also Jewish.
Staying in Wadena meant staying close to grandchildren for Tendall. A good friend of Tendall, Alicia Wynn, said she first met Tendall as a paraprofessional at the school.
“I remember working with a student who had a separate bus route that Kevin drove and each afternoon when he picked the student and I up, he always greeted us with a smile and was sure to ask about our day,” Wynn said. “At that time, I remember Kevin’s grandson, Ryan — only about 3 or 4 years old at the time, riding the bus route with his grandpa and seeing his smiling little face in the first seat of the bus, with a proud smile on grandpa Kevin’s face! I really was able to get to know Kevin and learn more about the lives he touched throughout his various roles in the military as well as the multitude of other capacities that he served on our daily talks on the bus route! One thing for certain is, anyone that knew Kevin, knew he loved serving others.”
More recently Tendall’s grandson came to stay with him. He made sure his grandson was cared for. They were very close.
“Everywhere we saw Kevin, including just a few days before he passed away, he was sure to ask how my family and I were and always made time to visit,” Wynn continued. “I will miss our chats, his smile, his humor, his personality, his wisdom, and all that he had to offer. What a privilege it was to know Kevin.”
Tendall shared this bit of advice with Wynn that may help others know how he looked at the world around him.
“Never regret a day in your life: good days give happiness, bad days give experience, worst days give lessons, and best days give memories.”
Tendall remained a member of the Wadena VFW and American Legion. As of Tuesday, Post members were unsure if there would be a local service for Tendall as it was up to the family to let them know their wishes. VFW members shared that they would certainly like to be involved in a service once they can find out more information from family members. With Kevin being Jewish and a synagogue not being near here, there are some things to work out in that respect.
Once more information is known about services, the Pioneer Journal plans to share those details.
UPDATE: An open house memorial has been set for noon to 5 p.m., Saturday, January 8, at the Wadena VFW. People are urged to bring stories of Kevin. Burial is planned at a later date at Fort Snelling.