From 80 miles off the coast of the Marshall Islands, Jim Kearnan watched a mushroom cloud fill the sky.
The 22-year-old Army chemist was a year-and-a-half out of Cal-Berkeley, drafted into the Korean War, and was on a ship being rocked by the shockwave of the first hydrogen bomb test, the Ivy Mike, then the largest man-made explosion in history.
Later in life, his son Greg Kearnan said the moment took on a different context, but that his father was always struck by the sheer power of such a thing. That an island, a piece of the earth, could be there one moment and be gone the next. Jim Kearnan kept the metal tag he and others wore that day in 1952 to measure the radiation.
Greg Kearnan didn’t know his father’s war stories until he helped him move to North Carolina in 2016 and his father shared them with his Cary retirement community. Greg, who has lived in Morrisville for a decade, encouraged his father to move to the Triangle.
With his father in his late 80s and still sharp, Greg Kearnan started taping their conversations, setting his father on a train of thought and letting him run with it until the battery died. He said he started to meet the man beyond his father. He said he thought to tape them to share with his four siblings, who are spread around the country.
“I benefited in the last three-and-a-half years of his life, of having an incredibly strong relationship with my dad,” said Greg Kearnan. “It really was the best time of my life with my dad. … I felt like they were missing stuff they might be interested in.”
In the last year, as his father grew weaker, he spent time in multiple nursing and rehab facilities, eventually moving in January into Wellington Rehabilitation and Healthcare in Knightdale.
In early April, Jim Kearnan was diagnosed with pneumonia, but as the facility reported multiple coronavirus cases — 47 cases as of April 12 — Greg and his father’s doctors suspected it could be something more.
Jim Kearnan was tested for COVID-19 on a Tuesday and got a positive result that Saturday.
On Easter Sunday, Greg said he talked to his dad with a window between them. Jim Kearnan died in WakeMed Hospital on Wednesday, April 15. He was 91 years old.
“We all knew his life stage,” Greg Kearnan said. “It wasn’t him dying, it was not being able to be there.. .. It’s no one’s fault, this is reality of life in a pandemic.”
On May 1, the state reported 52 cases among Wellington residents and staff, with 6 deaths.
Visiting all 50 states
James Kearnan, who went by Jim, was born in Ithaca, N.Y., the son of a traveling salesman. He went to high school in Oakland, Calif., and studied math and chemistry at the local college, the University of California-Berkeley.
In the early days of the Cold War, Kearnan’s military service was spent working on nuclear projects, including the Ivy Mike test in the South Pacific.
After the Army, Kearnan moved to Akron, Ohio, and worked as a chemist in the tire industry. There he met a librarian named Sally Smith at a local dance. The two were engaged in six weeks and married not long after. They raised five Kearnan kids: three boys and two girls, and had nine grandchildren. Sally Kearnan died in 2001.
Within his family, Jim Kearnan is most famous for his road trips, dubbed “Grandpapaloozas,” where as many grandkids who were interested piled in a car and set off to see the country.
Jim Kearnan was three states short of seeing all 50 a few years ago, so the first Grandpapalooza checked off the Dakotas, starting in Boston and covering 5,000 miles in six days. Others covered the South, New England and Montana.
Jim Kearnan made it to all 50 states.
Greg Kearnan and a brother went on the last Grandpapolooza a couple years ago, a luxury train trip through British Columbia in Canada. The train crept through the Canadian Rockies at 50 miles per hour.
“My dad saw it on ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ The trip as one of the prizes, and he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’” Greg Kearnan said. “It was perfect; slow and beautiful and perfect.”
In the Triangle, Greg Kearnan said his father softened and opened himself up more with people.
One morning, Jim Kearnan wanted a doughnut, so Greg Kearnan went to a grocery store in Cary, where there was just one left, but it had the unmistakable smush of a thumb print. It was a doughnut that could be loved by no one.
So the pair ventured out. Greg called upon Yelp to find the best nearby doughnuts, leading them to Baker’s Dozen Donuts. There, he became a regular, having a Bavarian creme most days, and an apple fritter on the others. He’d make goofy signs for the store, saying things like, “Do or Do-nut.” Today, his picture hangs in the shop, Greg said.
“He was not really used to interacting with people, the whole community thing,” Greg Kearnan said. “He really came to appreciate people, and he came out of his shell.”
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