Gail Kemler Celebrates a Century

Rochester is marking the 200th anniversary of its founding this year, and local resident Gail Kemler has witnessed almost half of the town’s two centuries of history. Kemler, of Rochester Hills, is planning to celebrate her 100th birthday at the end of this month, in the company of scores of family and friends.

Gail Johnson Kemler was born October 28, 1917 in Brookfield, Illinois, where her father worked on a railroad line. When Kemler was four years old, her mother became seriously ill and spent 11 weeks in the hospital. During her mother’s extended illness, Kemler and her two sisters came to Rochester to stay with relatives. At the time, their maternal grandparents, Edward and Cora Cole, operated the Idle Hour Theater on Main Street. The Idle Hour was Rochester’s first movie house, located on the west side of Main just south of the hotel on the corner of Fifth (now University Drive). The Coles lived in an apartment above the building next door to the theater.

Main Street, looking south from Fifth (now University Drive), as it

Main Street, looking south from Fifth (now University Drive), as it
looked during Gail Kemler’s early childhood. The Idle Hour Theater is
the second building from the right. (Courtesy of Rochester Hills Public

Kemler’s first memories of Rochester come from the time that she spent living with her grandparents next to the theater. The interurban cars running up and down Main Street fascinated the four-year-old girl as she watched them from the apartment window. “My grandfather met the two-o’clock interurban car every day,” she told Rochester Media in a recent interview. “The conductor would have the new movie reels with him, and my grandfather would swap out the ones he had. That’s how the new movies came to town.” 

Cora Cole sold tickets at her husband’s theater and brought her young granddaughter with her before the show started in the evenings. “I was allowed to run around the theater and the lobby while she sold tickets,” Kemler remembers. “But when it was time for the show to start, Grandma would take me back upstairs and put me to bed.” 

After her mother recovered, Kemler’s family moved from Illinois to Pleasant Ridge, Michigan. Her parents opened a cleaning service in 1925, but by 1931 the Great Depression had decimated their business. “Nobody could afford to pay for cleaning services then,” she recalls. The family moved back to Rochester and rented an apartment over the Oakland Dairy store at the corner of Third and Main (now the Home Bakery). The family of six plus two grandparents all lived together in the small space. “My two sisters and I all slept in the same bed – that’s the way things were then,” Kemler says. 

The Oakland Dairy “Double Dip” ice cream store occupied the first floor of the building, and was so named because it sold two scoops of ice cream for a nickel. “We were called the ‘double dip girls’,” Kemler says of herself and her sisters. 

Kemler attended Rochester High School and graduated with the class of 1935. She especially enjoyed studying English and history, and she fondly remembers Ethel Fitch and Merel Parks as favorite teachers.  

During the summer of 1935, the Double Jubilee celebration featured a

During the summer of 1935, the Double Jubilee celebration featured a
carnival in the middle of Main Street. (Courtesy of Rochester Hills
Public Library)

The summer of 1935 was an eventful one in Rochester. The village hosted the Double Jubilee, a celebration of the centennial of Avon Township’s founding. A carnival was set up on Main Street in the middle of the downtown business district, and Kemler remembers that the merry-go-round stood directly under her family’s apartment window at the corner of Third and Main. 

During that same summer, the knitting mill at Fourth and Water streets re-opened after sitting idle for several years. The prospect of jobs for the women of Rochester was welcome news during hard times. The mill had a contract to make mittens for the workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps, and Kemler was hired to attach the thumb pieces to the bodies of the mittens. “Somebody else had the job of closing the tip of the thumb,” she says. 

Since the job was “piece work” – meaning that the mill paid workers according to the number of pieces they completed – Kemler was anxious to produce as much work as possible. She timed herself to see how quickly she could complete a batch of mittens because she wanted to work efficiently. Her wages were helping to supplement the family income and every dollar helped. 

Kemler met her future husband after he escorted one of her sisters home from a Saturday night dance at Avon School. Don Kemler was the oldest son of well-known Rochester businessman John Kemler. John Kemler had settled in Rochester in 1907 and had opened the town’s first auto repair garage around 1910 in a barn behind George Burr’s hardware store. After selling the garage, he started a gravel business, and all of his sons worked with him. Following World War II, Don Kemler and his brother Raymond “Pete” Kemler formed an excavating firm and dug basements for homes in many of the new subdivisions springing up in the area. In 1952, the two brothers opened a ready-mix business on Mill Street. 

Gail Johnson and Don Kemler married in 1938, after dating and saving their money for five years. “We didn’t want to start out with money problems,” Gail Kemler remembers. They began their married life in a home that Don Kemler built for them at 206 Walnut. The couple had three sons and a daughter together, and lived on Walnut until 1955, when they moved to give their family more room. 

“Walnut was a beautiful street in the fall, back when the boulevards were there,” Kemler recalls. She could walk to stores like C. F. Smith and A&P for groceries, and Aris 5&10 or the D&C for household items. She sometimes stowed her purchases in the bottom of the baby stroller for the trip home. 

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Kemler was active in the PTA and worked on bond issues for Rochester Community Schools. The district’s buildings were overcrowded and some were on half-day schedules. Plans were in process for a new high school and two new junior high schools, as well as additional student capacity at the elementary level. When a controversial school board member named John H. Patterson resigned in 1964, Kemler was asked to fill his unexpired term. She later ran for the seat and served a total of eight years as a member of the Rochester Board of Education. Those were very busy days, Kemler recalls. Always an avid reader, she found she had no opportunity for such leisure pursuits. “I never read a novel in the eight years I served on the board. I had no time – there was so much work to be done, and I was determined to do the very best job that I could.” 

It was a novel, however, that proved to be a major challenge for the school board in those days. When asked to name the biggest issue facing the board during her tenure, Kemler did not hesitate to respond, “Slaughterhouse-Five. No doubt about it,” she said. Teacher Sally Mallon was using the controversial Kurt Vonnegut novel in an elective course at Rochester Adams High School. When the school district did not accede to a parent demand to remove the material from classroom use, a lawsuit followed. Judge Arthur Moore ruled in favor of the parent plaintiff in the case, asserting that Slaughterhouse-Five was ‘anti-religious” and “cheap, valueless reading material.” The ACLU and the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Foundation then interceded on behalf of the school district. After a protracted legal battle, the district won the case on a 3-0 decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals. 

In addition to her service as a member of the board of education, Kemler has a long résumé of volunteer work in Rochester. She was one of the original organizers of Neighborhood House, and co-chaired the Helping Hands Food Pantry for 17 years. She also served as a member of the Rochester Historical Commission from 1992 to 2013, and she is a past president of the Rochester Avon Historical Society. 

Gail Kemler in 2017 - photo by Deborah Larsen

Gail Kemler in 2017 – photo by Deborah Larsen

Today, as she looks forward to her personal centennial, Kemler lives every day to the fullest. This past March, she was inducted into the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm Community Hall of Fame, and several local organizations have honored her for her decades of volunteer community service. In recent months, she has served as a member of Rochester’s Historic District Study Committee, and continues to sit on the board of directors of the Rochester Avon Historical Society. She is also actively engaged with her church and with her family, which now includes 9 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and 5 great-great-grandchildren.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

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