In Memoriam – Russell Erwin Kees (1927-2016)

By Don Taylor

Photo of Russell Kees in army uniform
Russell Kees c. 1952
Source: Don Taylor

When I was growing up, my Uncle Russ was always a mystery – almost a myth. He was a photo on the wall and a wonder, as in “wonder what happened with Russell.  I knew my middle name came from him. I had heard a few stories, about how he took care of his sister, my mom, a lot when they were kids.  He was five years older and quite protective. I knew that after his grandmother’s husband died, he live with his grandmother during high school.  He was just a tad too young for World War II, but he did serve in Korea during the Korean War. After his military service he came back home to Detroit to help take care of his grandmother again. in 1953, his grandmother Ida (Barber) Knight died then he decided to “go out west” to find his natural father, who he hadn’t seen since he was five.  Then, he vanished to us.
My mother married, changed her name, and moved to Minnesota, making it hard for anyone to find her. Her mother, Donna, lived with my mom and me throughout the 1950s into the 1960s and never had a phone in her name, so she was virtually impossible to find as well. Every once in a while my mom would see a telephone directory for another city and look to see if there was a Russell Kees listed. When she found one, she’d call, but none of them was her brother.

In 2002, I was involved with my genealogy, searching for my biological father, to no avail, and got to thinking, could I use some of my new-found skills to find Russell? I talked with my mom who indicated that Russell graduated from Southwestern High School in Detroit in 1945, but not with the other students, he graduated in January, an odd time of the year. I devised a plan. I went to Classmates.Com and contacted every person in the 1944 and the 1945 classes from Southwestern High School. I told them my story and asked if they knew Russell Kees and if they had any contact information for him. People were responsive, and many remembered Russell but none had contact with him in years. Finally, a person responded, she had a reunion list that included Russ’s current contact information. She gave me his email address.  I contact Russ first by email, then by telephone, it was great. I learned that he spent much of his adult life living on Kwajalein Island, in the Marshall Islands, which is about half-way between Hawaii and New Guinea. He had been married three times and had one daughter. He had just retired, was living in Arizona, and would love to reconnect with his sister again.  Super!  I helped coordinate where and when they would meet and booked my flight from Boston to Minneapolis, so I could be there when it happened.  I then wrote an email to Classmates.Com and let them know of my success in finding my mother’s brother and told them they hadn’t seen each other for 50 years. I told them the date they would be meeting and thanked them so much for the service they provide. few days later, I received a telephone call from “60 Minutes II.” They had been informed by Classmates of the reunion and would love to send a crew to film it.

Photo of Sylvia Matson, Vicki Mabrey, Russell Kees - 2002
Sylvia Matson, Vicki Mabrey, Russell Kees –
2002

A few days later, I received a telephone call from “60 Minutes II.” They had been informed by Classmates of the reunion and would love to send a crew to film it.

(A quick aside: “The 60 Minutes II” call occurred while I was at work. In talking to them I was late for a staff meeting.  When I got to the staff meeting, my boss asked why I was late, I told him that “60 Minutes” had called and I couldn’t really hang up on them. He said “WHAT!” and I said, it really wasn’t “60 Minutes,” it was “60 Minutes II.” My boss’ eyes were like saucers, and he asked, “what did they want.”  I said, “would you believe they wanted to know what it was like to work at DCMA.” The look on his face was priceless – he totally freaked out. Then, I told him, no, they actually wanted to know the particulars of my mother and her brother meeting for the first time in 50 years. My boss was so relieved. I don’t think he thought it was funny, but all of the other people at the staff meeting did.)

My mom and Russell’s first meeting in 50 years
was filmed by a crew from “60 Minutes II”

My mom and Russell met in the hospitality area at a local hotel and the crew was there to film it. Their reunion went wonderfully. A few weeks later, “60 Minutes II” said they needed more and flew my mother from Minneapolis and uncle Russ from Phoenix to Albuquerque, put them up in a five-star hotel and filmed an interview with Vicki Mabrey.  Unfortunately, another Classmates.Com story took precedence over mom & Russ’s meeting so most of their interview ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sylvia & Russ on a cruise.

Mom’s husband, Edgar Jerome Matson, died later in 2003, and Russell and my mom became great friends. The took a cruise to Alaska together and a riverboat cruise on a paddleboat on the Ohio River. They loved sharing their time together. It was great to see their relationship grow and them to become great friends.

Although I only saw Uncle Russ six or eight times, I miss him dearly and miss the way he made my mom so happy.

Russell Erwin Kees (1927-2016)

Russell was born in Detroit, Michigan on 29 August 1927 to Samson (Sammy) Clark Amsterdam and Donna Knight [1] as Russell Erwin Clark Amsterdam. As a young child, he traveled with his mother and father, who were in show business, around the country. He was with them on the ship to Panama in 1930. Sammy and Donna divorced in 1932; Sammy lived in New York, Donna lived in Chicago, and Russell lived with Donna in Chicago.

Photo of Sylvia and Russell Kees, circa 1937
Sylvia and Russell Kees, circa 1937

About 1937, Donna became involved with a man named Russell Kees and lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan with him. Both my mom and Russell adopted the surname Kees, although I don’t believe that Donna ever married Russell Kees and both my mom and uncle Russ are sure Russell Kees never adopted them.

The husband of Russell’s maternal grandmother, Ida (Barber) Knight, Harvey Knight died in 1942 and Russell went to live with Ida shortly after that to help out there. He graduated from Southwestern High School. In high school, he was noted as an excellent roller skater.

He enlisted and service during the Korean War.  Russell told me the story that while in Korea, a plane strafed the jeep he was driving. He said he got out and into a ditch real fast.

His name change to Kees not being legal gave him some problems in the 1950s when he applied for a Top Secret Crypto clearance for his job. (A problem I too shared with my Taylor/Larson/Matson name changes and my inability to identify my father’s name.)

In 1954, Russell married Delphine Ann Sieradski. That marriage was short-lived and ended in divorce quickly.

In 1958, Russell married Jacqueline R Wigfield; they divorced as well, probably in 1964.

In 1965, Russell married June Elsie Callaway. They soon had a daughter. Russell and June divorced in 1968.

Russell spent many years on Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands. While on “Kwaj,” community theater dominated his activities. Theater was his passion, and he starred in many roles while there.  He is known to be an excellent piano player, able to play the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” In the 2000s he recorded playing “Beautiful Mother of Mine” a song written by his mother, Donna in 1923.

Photo of Russell Erwin Kees
Russell Erwin Kees
Probably c. 1948

He was an avid golfer, winning tournaments for his age group when he was in his 70s.

Russell Erwin Kees died on 16 March 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.
He is buried at National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, in Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona in Section H3, Row B, Site 39.

Russell is survived by daughter Dawn Milligan, sister Sylvia Matson, and two grandchildren.

If you knew Russell and have a story or two you can share, I would love to add your story about Russell to my family history.  Also, I’d like any photos you may have of Russell.  I will add them to a family album and possibly use them in a coliague  remembering Russell. Please use the comments below to share with me.  Comments will be considered as public unless you specifically state you would like the story kept private within the family.

Endnotes:

[1] This is the only record I have seen that indicates that Madonna Montran used the name of her stepfather, Harvey Knight.

Sources:

1940 Census – Michigan, Kent County, Grand Rapids, ED 86-156, Sheet 10B, Line 61, Age 12, attending school.  Ancestry.Com
Birth Certificate – State of Michigan – State File #: 121-582-0201178.
Cook County, Illinois Marriage Index, 1930-1960 – Ancestry.Com
Donna Montran Collection – Digital Scans held by Don Taylor
Email – Various between Don Taylor and Russell Kees & Don Taylor and Russell’s sister (Living).
New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 – Ancestry.Com
Find A Grave Memorial# 161134930 – Russell Erwin Kees