Metro-East Living

Take a swing on Grandma’s bench in Smithton park

Smithton park swing is tribute to life well-lived

Ken Kaffer had bench swing put in park in memory of wife Charlotte
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Ken Kaffer had bench swing put in park in memory of wife Charlotte

The new red bench in Smithton Village Park swings and has a story.

Just ask Ken Kaffer who took a ride on it Tuesday night with three of his grandkids.

“My wife (Charlotte) died Nov. 23 last year,” he said. “She donated her body to science. We decided to put in a bench at the community park. It’s something we talked about before she died. You can’t have a tombstone with nothing in it.”

Ken stopped in at Smithton City Hall about three months ago. The park has lots of benches. Deputy Clerk Annette Parker suggested a swing.

“They said it’s more expensive,” said Ken. “I said, ‘We are not talking about money, we are talking about Charlotte. Don’t worry. Just order it.’”

The swinging bench and plaque alongside cost about $850. The plaque reads: “Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord,” and beneath it, “In loving memory of Charlotte Rose Kaffer.”

“Her whole life revolved around family, music and God,” said Ken, 68, of Belleville, retired sales manager at Jack Schmitt Ford Lincoln Mercury in Collinsville. “She was music director at St. John the Baptist Church for 35 years. One of the nuns set her down at the organ when she was a kid. She worked at Auffenberg in Belleville.”

When she wasn’t working at the car dealership, she was teaching kids to sing.

“She was dedicated,” said Ken. “She would play organ at all three Masses.”

Ken and Charlotte knew each other long before they became a couple.

“She was my secretary. I was sales manager at Auffenberg,” he said. “When I left Auffenberg and went up to Jack Schmitt, I didn’t see her for almost 20 years. I lost my first wife, Linda, to colon cancer (in 2009). I loved her with all my heart, too. I had two unbelieveable women in my life. I was blessed. I believe God put me on earth to be a caregiver and to learn from these women.

“Somehow, some way, Charlotte and I ran into each other when I got my car serviced.”

They started talking.

“I was so lonely after Linda died,” he said. “Some guys can live alone. I get lonely. It was terrible. I got up the nerve to ask Charlotte if she wanted to get a cup of coffee. Finally, I got up the guts to ask her out. It’s like the Lord sent her.”

Both had grown children. He has two sons, Derek, of Belleville, and Ryan, of Troy, and grandchildren Madison, 15, and Ryan Jr., 8. Charlotte had two daughters, Amy Truttmann, of Smithton, and Amanda Trout, of Columbia, and a son, Daniel Baker, of St. Louis.

They shared a love of music. Ken, a singer, performed at nursing homes.

“I used to go around and sing Frank Sinatra songs at gigs. One time, she said, ‘I got you three gigs.’ I said, ‘How much are they paying?’ ‘No, we are not going to charge these people. We can do it for them.’”

They married May 29, 2010.

“I got her to retire (from being music director),” said Ken. “You know what happened? She got ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed two months after she retired.”

They had been married a little over a year.

“I made a promise to make her quality of life the best I could. She was determined not to let cancer get her down. She was still working at Auffenberg. She would take off Fridays. That was her chemo day.”

They both liked riding on Ken’s Harley.

“She was my navigator,” he said. “She tapped me on the right side to make a right turn. On one trip, we went from Belleville to Yellowstone together, 3,000 miles, nine days, nine states.”

Ken took a slower ride Tuesday evening with his grandkids — on the park’s new red bench swing.

Tanner Truttmann, 2, sat alongside. Six-month-old Vail Rose Trout, wearing a headband with a giant pink flower, sat on one of Kenny’s knees. Nine-month-old Simon Baker balanced on the other.

“Her goal was to live to see her third grandchild born,” said Ken. Vail Rose arrived Nov. 25. “She missed it by two days.”

Amy Truttmann, Charlotte’s daughter, watched son Tanner and his cousins swing.

“She was the best mom ever to us,” she said.

“She made you want to be a better person,” said Ken. “She taught me not to look at people and judge them. She gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. Know what she would say if someone was rude? They are just having a bad day. I never met anyone so positive. ... Being a salesman, you can get a little skeptical. She taught me not to lose my cool, I miss her every hour of every day.

“Today is Charlotte’s birthday. May 31. She would be 55 ... Her favorite food was pizza, Mine is ice cream. At the school (St. John the Baptist), we had Kaffer Memorial Pizza and Ice Cream Day in memory of her.”

“Pizza Hut was her favorite,” said Amy. “We all like pizza.”

They also like the new swing.

“We thnk it’s great addition to the park,” said Amy. “I’ll bring my son over all the time. It’s nice to have a place to sit and watch my son go and play.”

Ken sees another side to the swing project.

“It might get more people thinking about donating for the community, or a school. A swing like this? When the kids get worn out from playing, they can swing back and forth with Mom.”

Annette Parker, Smithton’s deputy clerk, said folks inquire once in a while about a memorial bench.

“We love it when people want to beautify the park,” she said. “I knew Charlotte. She was music director where my kids went to school. She was a wonderful person.”

They chose a wonderful spot for the bench, at the back of the park near playground equipment, not far from the home of Charlotte’s parents, Charles and Rose Mertens.

“We wanted it here so the grandkids could come over and use Grandma’s swing,” said Ken. “Charlotte would want people smiling and having a good time.”

“Charlotte loved kids,” said Annette. “She was great with them, being music director at the school and being involved with church. We thought it was appropriate to put it by the playground and by her parents’ house also. The trail extends south of the park and goes by their house.”