SHAWNEE, Kan. (AP) - If you ever hit the Snack Shak Phillips 66 gas station in Johnson County for your morning fill-up of coffee or breakfast edibles, you’ve likely seen a friendly and familiar face.
His name is Ed Kempf, and the Shawnee resident has been a longtime fixture behind the convenience store’s counter. He opens the store every morning of the week - getting to work at 6 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and an hour later on Sundays. He works only part-time, and usually leaves for the day by about 10 a.m.
“I run the register, do a little stocking,” he said. “I tell you what, it’s kept me alive. Because I have to get up and go.”
At 75 years old, Kempf isn’t just referring to his age, though. He is also battling emphysema and stage four lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with in March of last year. The cancer is incurable, and Kempf says he knows he is dying. But, as he also says simply, and rather good-naturedly, “Everybody’s gotta go sometime.”
Kemp is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and having a place he needs to be at every day helps a lot, too.
“If I go home and lay down, I’d be dead,” he said. “I just keep going.”
The Lawrence Journal-World (https://bit.ly/1P9ahGK ) reports that the former Army reservist has worn a number of hats throughout his life career-wise, from farmhand to grocery store clerk to real estate agent to even president of the United Labor Credit Union in Kansas City, Missouri. But he had no real plans to add gas station clerk to his resume until he met and struck up a friendship with Mukhtar Raja, the owner of Phillips 66, who is originally from Pakistan.
“He used to come every single morning to have a cup of coffee from the store,” said Raja, who recalled the financial struggles he underwent shortly after opening his Shawnee business in 2004. A partner he originally went into the business with pulled out of the deal, Raja said, and with no extra money to hire employees, “I was the only one left to run the show. So I used to open the store and close the store myself.”
During a conversation one morning, Raja shared his struggles with the retired Kempf.
“He said, ‘I need some help,’” Kempf recalled. “I said I’d help him out for a little while.”
That was back in 2005, and Kempf has been working at the Snack Shak register ever since.
“Well, I got to like the people,” he said, speaking of both the store’s daily customers as well as Raja, his wife and young son, who Kempf now thinks of as family. “And I’m a people person anyway. Anybody that knows me will tell you that. And I just enjoyed doing it. And I’m not getting rich, that’s for sure, but I tell you what, I see the same people, and I send ‘em out with a smile if I can.”
Kempf has been more than just a fixture at Shawnee’s only locally-owned gas station and convenience store. Living here since 1946, he has been around longer than many of the city’s current businesses and developments, and still recalls a slower-paced environment of gravel roads and vegetable farms.
“Where you were sitting used to be a field,” he said recently during an interview at the Shawnee Dispatch office, 6301 Pflumm Road. “This was a Belgian community. It had more than Belgians in it, but that’s basically the biggest amount of people.”
From the ages of 9 to 16 - well before current labor laws were enacted - Kempf worked in those vegetable farms. He later went to work at Van’s Food Center, located at the time at 63rd and Nieman.
“At one time, it was the biggest store in the greater Kansas City area,” Kempf said of the now-closed grocery store, where he stayed for more than 10 years. “I started as a carryout boy and ended up being their first clerk.”
In 1961, Kempf joined the Army as a reservist, during which he was stationed in Missouri and, later, Virginia. His stint as a reservist ended in late 1966.
“That’s about when Vietnam was getting hot, so I really lucked out there,” Kempf said.
After leaving the Army, Kempf went back to the grocery store for a bit, and then sold real estate until 1987, when he took the job at the credit union. He retired in 2003.
When not at Phillips 66, you might see Kempf outside on the front lawn, tending the roses in front of his Shawnee home. Or you might find him spending time with his grandchildren, of which he has four. On Sundays, you will definitely find him at St. Joseph Catholic Church, where he has been a member since moving to the city with his family at age 6.
At work, however, the politically-minded Kempf and Raja are taking care of business, both in the store and on the world stage.
“We used to settle the world’s problems,” Kempf said with a laugh about those days when he was just a regular customer, coming in for coffee and conversation with Raja. “And we still do. He looks at it from the Asian angle; I look at it from the American angle. Between the two, we come up with conclusions.”
Of Kempf, Raja said he has “never seen a man like this, ever, in my life,” so willing to help him out when he needed it most.
“Not because of the money or anything. And he treats me just like own son, probably treats me better than that,” Raja said.
Since Kempf’s cancer diagnosis, Raja said he has tried to get his friend to slow down a bit and take a break here and there from work if he needs it. But Kempf still shows up, ready to work each day. His doctor gave Kempf a prognosis in 2015 of no more than two years.
“But you know what, I don’t think he’s right,” Kempf said. “I’m going to keep on going.”
It’s his grandkids he keeps fighting for, Kempf said. And also, well, he’s just pretty stubborn.
“When they tell me to lay down, I’m still not going to do it, because I’m hard-headed. I think half of surviving is right here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “Most people would have been dead already. I’m not.”
Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, https://www.ljworld.com
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