I remember well the first time I met Ken Jernstedt. I was probably 8 or 9 years old and we were living on the cherry orchard six miles outside of The Dalles.
My brothers and I were home while my parents were at some dinner event in town. The phone rang and it was my mother, imploring us boys to get the house picked up because Senator Jernstedt was coming back to our house when the event ended.
I half expected helicopters and secret service agents to advance the route. I had no idea who this man was, but a “senator” coupled with the partial panic in my mother’s voice made it clear somebody important was headed our way.
Ken Jernstedt was always important. He did important things. Amazing things. Flew fighter planes “over the hump,” and kept secrets for 50 years about what agency of the government he had worked for during those sorties. He was a test pilot, a businessman, mayor, senator and mayor again.
When Gov. Tom McCall ran for re-election in 1970, I donned a McCall for Governor vest and went to the Hood River County Fair and asked people as they parked if they’d like a McCall bumper sticker. Some did. Others didn’t.
But when the governor showed up at the gate with Sen. Jernstedt in the car, I got to ride the few hundred feet from the entrance of the fairgrounds in Odell to wherever it was we stopped. Later that afternoon, I accompanied my parents to the Jernstedts’ home for a small reception with the governor. (My father was making his first bid for state representative that year.)
Dad won election, and the “Senator” and my father roomed together for a session or two, until I think my father’s legendary snoring probably drove them to find separate shelter.
When I contemplated running for state representative in 1987, Sen. Jernstedt was one of the first people I went to see. His longtime friendship and counsel meant much to me. He got along well with people and always tried to find solutions to the problems faced by our community, state and nation.
After his distinguished service in Salem, he didn’t just quit. No, his public service gene kicked in again, and he returned home to Hood River and served as mayor. Not as a caretaker, but as a reformer; a leader.
I’ve seldom met a person who had a better memory or could tell a better story. He liked people and it showed. He enjoyed a good laugh.
And he always kept giving back. Even when his eyesight failed him, he stayed active, walking the streets with his guide dog, Driscoll. I’d see him at coffee at the Hood River Hotel where a group of “locals” would gather each morning to solve the problems of the day. Ken would mostly listen, and then something would trigger a story. A story about his Flying Tiger Days. Old Hood River. The Legislature. Everyone would listen. And learn. And enjoy.
Ronald Reagan once said: “Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have made a difference in the world. Marines don’t have that problem.”
Ken Jernstedt wasn’t a Marine, but he was part of the American Volunteer Group. He was Mayor. He was Senator. He was a friend and counselor to many. A good father, too. And there’s no doubt this Flying Tiger sure made a difference.
And now he’s free to fly, again…with the angels.