This morning, I was very sad to learn of the death of Chuck Uhlenkott, the father of one of my best friends of the past 26 years and a singular figure in my own life. He passed away on May 13th. The funeral is today.
In early 1997, the year I started college, I had just come out of the Legionaries of Christ and was trying to get my bearings. I got a job building and repairing computers near my hometown of Binghamton, New York. It was a good job, and I learned a lot, but I needed a change of pace.
My best friend from high school, who had been with me in my Legionary assignment, was Paul Uhlenkott. We’d taken thousands of miles of road trips together and had quite a few adventures. And that year, he invited me to another one: come on out and live with his family in Northern Idaho for the summer before we headed off to Steubenville together to start our classes for the fall semester.
I took him up on that offer, and after yet another road trip that took me to Idaho by way of New Orleans and Texas and a bunch of other places along the way, Chuck and Kerry Uhlenkott, Paul’s parents, welcomed me into their home like I was another son — and they had eight kids of their own.
I worked with them and for them, in their well pump business, around the farm, chasing cows, bailing hay, failing to properly ride a horse, doing all the stuff I’d never done as a kid growing up and had no idea how to do. In some respects, I worked harder that summer than I ever have. But it was the kind of work that brought an intense satisfaction at the end of the day. Up early, driving hours through the mountains in that incredibly beautiful stretch of country, doing physical labor out in the sun, coming home after dark exhausted and hungry, only to grab a hearty meal and, if we could get away with it, an ice cold Keystone Light before fading off into the kind of deep sleep that only that sort of work induces.
My time in Idaho was the beginning of a healing process for me. It pulled me out of my head and a distracted me from a lot of the anxiety my experience with the Legion had caused and gave me purpose. It kept me busy.
Living with Chuck was like living with a tall tale. He was a devout Catholic, and it’s no surprise that one of his six sons became a priest. He was, for many years, a champion of the pro-life cause, and spent countless hours engaged in activism for the unborn. My impression was that nothing bothered him more than the fact that abortion had become such a scourge in our nation.
But if he was often angry about that tragedy, it didn’t turn him bitter. He was big and loud and funny — always willing to laugh, always cracking a joke, usually on the sly to see if you’d catch it. He was very knowledgeable about all kinds of things. He didn’t much care what people thought of him, and lived life on his own terms. He always seemed to be having run-ins with the police in one way or another — I think it’s fair to say he lived the American “Don’t Tread on Me” ethos to the core — and one of my favorite stories about him, though it may well be apocryphal, involved him innocently sharpening a bowie knife while talking to a nervous State Trooper who had pulled him over for speeding in his big Ford diesel pickup.
But if he had an ornery streak, he was also gentle and kind. He loved reading books, and was a man who would take his young sons with him to work, and stop and smell the flowers along the way. He’d take the time to talk to them, and ask them their thoughts, and explain things about the world. And he’d have them go and fetch this or that tool so that they could, even at 6 or 8 years old, learn about and participate in the value of work. It made him less efficient at his job, but much more efficient at being a good dad.
It was with Chuck, Paul, and Paul’s brother Greg that I did the trip to the Seven Devils mountains where I had the harrowing experience of getting lost in the wilderness that I wrote about here. (It was also Paul I went with the following year on the long, crazy pilgrimage from Steubenville to Our Lady of Guadalupe.)
That Idaho summer is one of the single most memorable experiences of my life. I’ve thought of it often over the years. And even though we lived on opposite ends of the country and I saw Chuck only on rare occasions after that, he was always the same amiable guy when I did. He’d see me and smile, and immediately tease me about something. “They let people like you into an establishment like this? I’m going to have to file a complaint.”
He was a mold-breaker, that’s for sure. I’ve never met anyone like him. And what I know about him is only a drop in the bucket. I spent such a short time with him, and I hope I haven’t done his memory an injustice through the insufficiency of my knowledge of the man.
That summer doesn’t feel like so long ago. The kind of friendships forged in the experiences of youth are essentially unbreakable. Paul and I only see each other once every couple of years, but we still call each other like clockwork on our respective birthdays (to be honest, Paul does this and I TRY to remember) and when we get together, it’s like nothing ever changed. The same old jokes. The same old stories. Memories rich with experience.
I found out last year that Chuck had gotten sick with Leukemia, and I’d meant to write him a letter telling him how much that summer meant to me. But I let the busyness of my own life get in the way, and time got away from me. I regret that, and so I wanted to say some of it now.
First thing I did when I heard he’d passed was ask him to pray for me, because I think he had a pretty good chance of getting into heaven early. But just in case he had to make a purgatory stop along the way, I’d like to ask all of you to please pray for him, for the repose of his soul, and for the consolation of his family. They’re amazing, salt of the earth people, and they’re like family to me, even if we haven’t seen each other in a while. My heart is with them today in their grief.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
His obituary follows.
CHARLES “CHUCK” UHLENKOTT, 78
On May 13th, the double feast days of the Ascension and Our Lady of Fatima and two days before his 79th birthday, Charles “Chuck” Uhlenkott passed from this life into eternity.
Chuck, the eldest of 7 children, was born on May 15, 1942, to Raymond and Hildegarde (Goeckner) Uhlenkott at their family home outside of Cottonwood, Idaho.
He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Cottonwood, went to Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon his freshman year in high school, and then graduated from St. Gertrude’s Catholic High School in Cottonwood in 1960.
He spent much of his younger and adult years helping with the family farm and ranch and working with his uncle Alphonse Uhlenkott in the water well drilling and pump business.
Chuck’s Grandpa Joe Uhlenkott had purchased a cable well drill in the early 1900’s. Over the years, Joe, and then his son, Alphonse and later his grandsons, spent many years with the cable tool drilling wells for friends and neighbors. When seeing how much more efficient the rotary air drills were, Chuck, his father and brothers decided to buy their first rotary drill in 1968. Uhlenkott Well Drilling continues to thrive today.
Although Chuck did not attend college, he was a self-taught man spending much of his free time reading and studying calculus, astronomy, and the sciences. He even built a homemade oscilloscope.
In 1971 Chuck learned to fly, bought his first airplane and flew extensively for many years. He loved teaching others the many things he learned – especially his children and grandchildren.
On June 15, 1973, Chuck married Karren “Kerry” Orr. They eventually bought their family home near Cottonwood in 1979, were parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and became proud parents of eight children and 30 grandchildren.
In 1973, Chuck took over Uhlenkott Pump Service from his uncle Alphonse and worked this business with his family for over 39 years. He retired in 2012 and sold his business to a former employee, David Spencer and his wife Danielle. These years were extremely busy taking care of his many customers all over Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Chuck absolutely loved his work, and especially thrived on working with his children while helping people with their water needs.
Chuck was known to be a physically strong working man who loved his Catholic faith. It was not uncommon to see him at an early morning daily Mass or kneeling in adoration late in the evening after a full day’s work.
He was highly regarded as a moral and upright man with a great sense of humor who always enjoyed telling a good joke and playing pranks on his family and friends. He had an unconditional love for his wife and children, and also for all children. This led him and his entire family to be active in the prolife movement beginning in 1980. Since then, he remained diligent in fighting for the unborn and constant in his support of Kerry in her prolife lobbying efforts. Chuck and Kerry traveled throughout Idaho giving educational prolife presentations in schools and to other various audiences.
Chuck loved singing while playing the piano, guitar, harmonica, and accordion – all by ear – for the entertainment of his family and friends.
A highlight for Chuck was traveling with his wife and two daughters to Ahaus, Germany and Widnau, Switzerland in 2015 to visit the homeland of his Uhlenkott and Frei ancestors.
Chuck is survived by his wife, Kerry, his children, Gregory (Maura and 8 children), Paul (Kristin and 6 children), Daniel (Mimi and 6 children), Matthew (Magdalene and 6 children), Kristina Gervais (Joe and 2 children), Fr. Mark, Jacob (and 2 children), and Rachel.
He was preceded in death by his parents and his sister, Elaine Alquist.
Services for Chuck will be at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Cottonwood, on Thursday, May 20th with a rosary at 10:30 am and Mass of Christian Burial at 11:00 am with Fr. Mark, Bishop Peter Christensen, and Fr. Paul. The family invites all attending to a dinner at the Keuterville Hall following the burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Arrangements are under the direction of the Blackmer Funeral Home, Grangeville. Send condolences to the family to blackmerfuneralhome.com
In lieu of flowers please send a donation to a local, state or national prolife organization or pregnancy care center in his memory.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.