Special Olympics Wisconsin lost a dear friend and a true champion for its athletes recently when Ken Kuemmerlein passed away on July 19 from COVID-19.
For the better part of a decade, Kuemmerlein helped change the lives of Special Olympics athletes with the West Allis program as a basketball coach with an outsize personality and a heart to match. His infectious energy, humor and positivity made an impression on everyone he crossed paths with, making him a deeply admired person throughout both the Special Olympics Wisconsin community and the greater Milwaukee community.
“He has touched so many lives,” said Laurie Knodl, the mother of West Allis athlete Ryon Knodl. “I think that even if somebody just meets him once, it’s a lifelong memory because he’s that kind of guy.”
“Ken loved everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are. Nothing mattered because Ken made everybody feel like they were his best friend and he gave you 150% attention when you were with him.” – childhood friend Jenne Hohn
Laurie’s son, Ryon, was able to create many lifelong memories with Kuemmerlein because they became unified golf partners a couple years ago, which culminated in the two of them traveling to Abu Dhabi last year to compete together in Unified Golf during the 2019 Special Olympics World Games.
After coaching Ryon for a few years in basketball, Kuemmerlein asked Ryon what he wanted to try next. Despite the fact that neither were huge golfers, they decided to try golf together. From that point on, their friendship blossomed.
According to Laurie, Kuemmerlein told her, “When we play basketball, Ryon is one of my athletes. But when we’re out on that golf course and it’s just the two of us, and then we went to training camp in Delaware and Abu Dhabi, I consider Ryon a really good friend, not just my athlete.”
Starting at the USA Games training camp in Delaware, Kuemmerlein helped the quiet and reserved Ryon gradually come out of his shell. Eventually, they would grow close enough that they would text each other often. Kuemmerlein was frequently checking in on Ryon or inviting him to golf or go to other events around town. Their friendship grew to the point that Ryon told his mom that Kuemmerlein was his best friend.
Eventually, they even became a recognizable pair around Milwaukee or within the Special Olympics Wisconsin community.
“Ken used to joke that he and Ryon, with a foot and an inch difference in height, one very talkative, one very non-verbal, that they were the Penn & Teller of Special Olympics golf,” Laurie said.
The ease with which Kuemmerlein befriended a quiet and shy Special Olympics athlete like Ryon exemplifies the type of person he was throughout his life.
“Ken would always tell the team, ‘Don’t even look at the clock. Don’t look at the scoreboard. That’s my job. Your job is to have a really good time playing basketball. Did you have fun in that game? Yes? Then you did your job.’” – Laurie Knodl
“Ken loved everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are,” said longtime friend Jenne Hohn. “Nothing mattered because Ken made everybody feel like they were his best friend and he gave you 150% attention when you were with him.”
Hohn had known Kuemmerlein since they were kids. They grew closer while attending Cedarburg High School together and maintained that bond over the years.
In the years since graduating high school, Hohn has moved all over the country. But one thing she could always count on regardless of her location was Kuemmerlein’s friendship.
“The thread through my life, the one friend that I really kept, was my constant contact with Ken,” Hohn said. “He was always checking up on me, always making sure I was doing okay, and he always had wonderful advice for me.”
When she moved back to the Milwaukee area in recent years, he was one of the first people to help welcome her back to the city. They quickly became “sports buddies” and “fest buddies” who would attend Packers or Brewers games together or visit some of the incredible festivals on offer in Wisconsin.
Kuemmerlein also helped bring Hohn into the Special Olympics family when she returned to the Milwaukee area. After seeing how much of an impact Kuemmerlein made on the athletes and how much of an impact they made on him, she eventually started coaching volleyball and basketball. And now, Hohn will now step in as Ryon’s unified golf partner.
She’s humbled that Ryon is willing to accept her as his new partner and excited about their partnership, but she knows that no one can fill Kuemmerlein’s shoes. In fact, between her and two other friends who will step in for Kuemmerlein as basketball coaches, it will take three people to replace him.
But that’s the kind of person Kuemmerlein was. “We were all blessed to have a friend like Ken,” Hohn said. “Ryan Steny (an owner at Steny’s Tavern, where Kuemmerlein worked) said ‘someone like Ken comes around once in a lifetime’ and it was really an honor to have someone like that in my life.”
In addition to Hohn and her friends carrying on Kuemmerlein’s Special Olympics coaching legacy, his presence will continue to be felt across Milwaukee in other ways. Steny’s Tavern partnered with the Milwaukee Brewing Company to create a #BeLikeKen beer in his honor. And the hashtag encourages people to “Be kind. Be present. Be a friend.”
Hohn and some of her fellow Cedarburg High graduates have also started a scholarship fund in Kuemmerlein’s honor to be awarded to Cedarburg students who are interested in working with people with intellectual disabilities.
Hopefully as a result of this scholarship fund and Kuemmerlein’s legacy that will live on, more people can go on to work with people with intellectual disabilities with similar compassion, love and respect as Kuemmerlein displayed during his time as a Special Olympics coach.
“Ken would always tell the team, ‘Don’t even look at the clock. Don’t look at the scoreboard. That’s my job. Your job is to have a really good time playing basketball. Did you have fun in that game? Yes? Then you did your job,’” Laurie said.
Kuemmerlein’s absence will be felt in the Special Olympics and Milwaukee communities for years to come. Although he can’t be replaced, let’s hope that at the very least more people can #BeLikeKen.