For my father

John Kivela’s death on May 9 was a shock felt throughout the state of Michigan. The fact it was a suicide made it even harder to come to terms with. Kivela was a passionate civil servant, a loving father and husband, and an alcoholic. The first two were well-known, but his struggle with alcoholism was a secret to most until a drunk driving arrest in Clinton County in 2015 brought it to light. Rep. Kivela touched a lot of lives in his almost 48 years. Hundreds turned out to pay their respects during a memorial service held at the University Center at Northern Michigan University. Lawn signs from his campaigns for Marquette City Commission and state representative popped up in yards across the area. His loss was, and continues to be, felt by many. Here at Marquette Monthly, we’d like to honor Kivela’s life by spreading the word about the help that is available to those struggling with alcoholism or suicidal thoughts. You are loved and you are not alone. Here’s how to get help:

Suicide Prevention
National Lifeline: 800-273-TALK
Dial Help: 800-562-7622

Alcoholics Anonymous

24-hour answering service: 249-4430

By Shelby Kivela

Editor’s note: The following is the eulogy given by Shelby Kivela, the only daughter of John Kivela, at his funeral service on May 13.

I am both heartbroken and honored to be standing before you. Putting together my dad’s story in a way to make people feel the real John Kivela is a terribly daunting task. Many people knew him as a leader of community and a champion of the U.P., but to those closest to him we knew that he was really just a goofball who made too many inappropriate jokes, was always covered in dog hair and loved deeper than most humans have the capacity for.

It only seems fitting to start from the beginning with stories of his childhood with his brother, two sisters and cousins who were raised in Deer Track Village. All of the children who lived there were part of the DTDA—the Deer Track Detective Agency, a society put together by a neighbor woman who wanted the kids to report to her any suspicious activity in the area. One summer, my dad and his best friend, Brad, drained the man-made pond in Deer Track, which left all of the fish in the bottom to die. My Uncle Kevin was recruited by the neighbor to take on the task as lead investigator on the case of who drained the pond. She offered him $5 to work on the case; however it was mostly a bribe to get him to rat out his brother. Everyone knew it was John who did it—but the DTDA continued to report that its investigation was inconclusive, and Kevin collected about $15 by the end of the summer.

As they grew up, my dad and his sister, Kris—self-proclaimed blonde-haired twins—took the bus to their dad’s automotive shop where they’d work until their lunch break and then run to the blood bank, where they only had 30 minutes to race through their blood donations. They’d pump their fists and eye each other’s bags filling up, always accelerating the competition of who could finish their donation fastest. My dad continued to be a regular blood donor for the rest of his life, eventually taking me to donate as soon as I was 18.

When I was a young girl, I’d watch my dad in our garage in complete awe as he’d work on what I perceived to be a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, but was, in fact, a car engine. He told me he had built his own motorcycle when he was only 16 and that he could take an engine apart and put it back together without a manual. I truly felt he must be smarter than a brain surgeon to know how to “operate” on what felt like an unlimited number of makes and models of vehicles. He used these skills with pride as he worked for his parents, Bruce and Sandy Kivela, and alongside siblings, Rob and Wendy, at Marquette Automotive. He always came home from work with thick, callused fingers and dirty fingernails, a pair of splotchy steel-toed boots and a lingering smell of motor oil—all characteristics I associated with the word “dad.”

Later he became the general manager of Jon’s Auto. He was proud to claim the months he had hit the statistics to be the highest-selling used car salesman in the Upper Peninsula and would brag about all of the older women who were charmed by his boyish smile—but his true pride came in the pranks he pulled on his coworkers. He was so giddy to get home and tell us how he’d super glued the mechanics of a pen together and kept a straight face watching the owner try to use it, or how he had put someone’s phone in the ceiling tiles and continued to call it nonchalantly, watching the owner frantically search for the missing device.  He once told his boss, J.C., that he’d pay off debts he had accumulated on the golf course in cold hard cash, and then came to J.C. with a plethora of dollar bills that he had dipped in water and then froze—belly laughing as he imagined his best friend and boss thawing out the money by letting it tumble in a dryer. That was a big part of who John Kivela was—a bullshitter, a prankster and a man who loved to laugh with others.

His public service started with his time as a local businessman who wanted to integrate with his community. He was so proud to be a Rotarian, even agreeing to open our home to an exchange student from India for several months. Countless other organizations took his interest and eventually he was inspired to join the Zoning Board of Appeals in Marquette. This specifically sticks in my memory because it changed the normal weekend flow in the Kivela house.

We often referred to “Kivela Sundays” growing up—a day that started with someone fetching the Mining Journal while my dad cooked a big breakfast for the family and my mom sipped her coffee. My dad would read headlines and my mother would rifle through advertisements while my brother and I fought over the Sunday comics. There would be a period of time where we’d get on the floor to play tug-of-war or just snuggle our beloved dog, Max. After this intimate family time, the day usually carried on with a hike in the woods or a swim at Wetmore’s Landing beach, followed by a mandatory trip to Menards for my dad, and ending with my father cooking an incredible meal while the Packers played in the background.

When my dad joined the zoning board and then the city commission, this dynamic didn’t really change, but his focus did. Our routine began to include getting in the car and driving to the places he would later vote on. We’d look at property lines in person. He’d take us to intersections and stand on the corner and imagine what would be positively and negatively affected by subtle changes. There was going to be a vote held on whether to change a street name in Marquette, and we drove down the street counting every house that would be inconvenienced by having to change their mailing address—he was thinking about the people inside the houses, not merely the name of a street. That was the magic my dad had early in his political career that made me convinced he would make an amazing representative for our corner of Michigan—and I was right.

I will leave the highlights of his time as our representative to his good friend, roommate and colleague in Lansing, Senator Knezek, but I will briefly touch on what I think was the best moment of his political career—the time we called ourselves “Team Kivela” and won the initial Democratic primary that would lead him to his career as the state representative for the 109th district. Team Kivela was a makeshift group of people, the few who believed my dad could win. His nieces and cousins showed up to make phone calls with us, march in parades, strategize at cookouts, and spent the summer walking around in red shirts that bore our own name in big white letters. Many of my father’s closest friends, Republicans, reached out to anyone who would listen, telling them to trust this Finnish Democrat to put aside party politics and get real work done for our community. I remember my roommate making phone calls with me one day and she was asked by a constituent, “Why is a young girl like you taking your time to support this man?” My friend responded that my dad had made her dinner countless times and helped her buy her first car, and she didn’t even know much about his politics but just believed that he was a good person who would make the best decisions he could for our community—needless to say that vote got locked down, and several more that same evening. That election encapsulated everything my dad was—the hardest worker I knew, a man who would talk to anyone regardless of circumstance,  and a man who wouldn’t take “you’ll never win” for an answer.

Two of the highlights of my dad’s time in Lansing were when he got to bring his now late-mother, Pat, and just this year, sister, Pam, and uncle, Mo, to visit. Before each visit he would talk non-stop about his excitement, all of the things he would show them, and how much it meant to him that the people he loved most would take the time to travel his long commute just to see where he worked. These trips meant everything to him and left him beaming with pride.

My dad’s public service and dedication to the people of the Upper Peninsula was of high value to him, but he never missed an opportunity to make it clear who his three favorite constituents were.

The day after my dad died I found this letter while sifting through old photographs, and I believe it says it all:

(reading from handwritten letter from John to Sandy Kivela)

“You were my first love, all my life, though I met you only halfway through it. I fell in love before I knew your name, I wanted to be your husband before our first date was over. My dream came true when you said “yes” and “I do.” You held my hand, and carried me through my darkest hour, only to reward me with the two greatest gifts I could’ve imagined. As our life has become more fun and full of love of the years, I attribute it to you—my first and only ever true love. I love you forever, unconditionally. — John”

My father married my mother at the gazebo on Presque Isle on the exact one-year anniversary of their first date—a dinner served at a high top table at Vango’s. They honeymooned on Mackinac Island, where they changed their names to Artuar and Celeste to be incognito, and have joked about how they almost divorced while riding a tandem bicycle around the island. (It’s still unclear who the lazier peddler was).

My mom took a gamble on a 19-year-old boy who drove a $500 car, and he spent the rest of his life making sure she knew everything he did was for her.

My brother and I spent our lives groaning and rolling our eyes as they kissed and danced in the kitchen, or as my dad would compliment my mother’s assets—right in front of us. We kept up the charade that we hated it, but we knew deep down that they were setting an example of how true love should really look.

He loved surprising her with creative Christmas gifts and renovating sections of the house quickly if she ever left town for vacation.

The best surprise was when he re-created their wedding day for their 25th anniversary.

Every detail was just right—my father had my mother’s original dress restored my cousin, Ashley, the original flower girl, re-created an outfit to match the one she wore on the wedding day in 1989; there was a hula-hoop competition at the reception just like the one my Aunt Jean had notoriously won 25 years prior; and my father gifted my mother a beautiful string of pearls—the one she is wearing today—as a replacement for the plastic ones she wore on their original wedding day.  My mother was convinced to get in her dress and have her hair done for what my dad explained was going to be a “recreation photo shoot.” When he and my mother pulled up to the gazebo my mom said “it looks like there is already a wedding going on here—we can’t do this.” But my dad assured her they were “more important” and “wouldn’t get in the way.”  My mom got out of her red Jeep and quickly noticed the crowd at the gazebo was not just some wedding, but her closest friends and family. She began crying, but my dad just got down on one knee and proposed to her all over again. My parents’ original maid of honor and best man walked them down the aisle, and my brother and I wore matching outfits with the wedding party as we surrounded my parents and they re-professed their love and commitment. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life, but I had to hear a lot of our married friends groan because my father had set a precedent no one will ever surpass.

My dad made it clear to everyone that he would never seek an office that would take him away from his precious weekends in Marquette. He loved his job, but he loved coming home to my mom and spending the weekend cooking and hiking with her and their herd of Saint Bernards most of all.

My dad was a loving husband and father. He was just the most amazing dad. Our family was fortunate to go on many wonderful vacations and excursions through the years, including Christmas in Maui, stalking characters at Disney World and boogie boarding on Daytona Beach.  Despite all of these exciting travels, the vacation we reminisced about most was a two-week summer vacation we took in an RV around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When I was in third grade and my brother was in first, our elementary school forgot about all regular social studies topics and taught us exclusively all of the logistics of lighthouses and iron ore boats. Our education inspired my dad to provide mechanical labor for a friend with a motor home—asking in return to use it for two weeks with his family. We followed a circular route around the Upper Peninsula, visiting every ore boat and lighthouse-themed attraction my parents could find. We camped on the shores of Lake Michigan and swam directly under the Mackinac Bridge. We watched my dad read every historical plaque, as he notoriously does, and on a mile-long hike into the Au Sauble lighthouse that felt very long for two young kids, my dad made it easier by teaching us how to identify all different types of trees based on their needles, bark and leaf shape. Our life was simple, but it was anything but ordinary.

Beyond my brother and myself, there were countless nieces, nephews, cousins and children of friends that he adored.  During the summer you’d often find him in his favorite place—cooking on the big brick barbeque he had built into our deck and watching as friends and family dove in and out of the in-ground pool he had installed with a handful of friends about two decades ago. He waited for the end of summer when our family from New York would visit so he could spend the week jumping off cliffs into the big lake with my cousins and all of our friends who came out to enjoy a weekend on Lake Superior. My cousin Ashley gave our family the first two “grandbabies,” and you knew you were going to fight like hell to get to hold one if Uncle John was around—he loved babies, and the way he could sooth them proved that they loved him back. John was the mayor when his niece, Chelsea, got married and he was honored beyond belief to help organize and preside over her wedding, a favor he did for many marrying couples, but her’s was the most cherished of them all. For his niece, Macey’s, wedding, he made an incredible multi-level cake, which he took on with the same seriousness as everything else in his life. Oh, did I not mention that my dad was essentially a professional cake maker? That’s a story for another time…

The most valuable lessons I take away from my father are those on friendship and family.

He never stopped teaching us how to be a friend. We learned early that the line between friendship and family is frequently blurry, and many of his best friends I knew as “uncle” before I even realized they weren’t connected to me by blood. He taught us to leave a phone nearby every single night and when someone calls at 3 a.m.—you answer, get out of bed and do anything they need. He taught us that if that phone call is “my car broke down in St. Ignace,” then you prepare yourself for a three-hour drive to go help them. He was known best for his sarcasm and wit—the more he verbally abused you, the more he loved you. If you were lucky enough to be in his inner circle, then you were rock solid—that’s what she said. What can I say? He was the king of those jokes…

As I read you these stories and qualities of a dedicated husband, father, friend and man of the community, I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why? Why do I have to be up here right now reading this to you? Why does a man who re-married his wife three years ago and continues to fill his home with new St. Bernard puppies and is adored by a community leave us so soon?”

He was claimed by the disease of addiction, a demon that he could no longer handle. There is no shame in a problem that does not prejudice against age, race, gender, socio-economic status or social standing. There is no reason to hide. My father lived a rich life and gave so much to the world; it’s now time for our community to give back by tackling these issues, and we can only do that by continuing to tell these stories.

Oh, Dad. I love you so much. It’s that simple. I love you. I miss you. We all love you and we will miss you forever. But I only knew I could keep it together up here until the end if I closed to you with this tribute. So, here we go:

“Go Pack Go!”


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