Ross Barnett Kongable passed away on June 14, 2021 at his home in New Bern, North Carolina.
Ross was forever young-at-heart and always open for adventure. He was optimistic and resilient by nature, and he was grateful for and enjoyed the life he had lived to the end. In his later years, he gave credit to “Serendipity”, marveling that he had led such a charmed and lucky life, where one fortunate event led to another. He is missed greatly by his family, including his two daughters, Felicia Kongable and Diana (Kongable) Schmidt, his granddaughter Natalie (Schmidt) Karasek and her husband Jasha Karasek, his brother Bill Kongable, his niece Patricia (Kongable) Ramsey and her daughters Lauren and Kimberly Ramsey, his nephew Richard Kongable, and many dear friends.
Ross was born in Hominy, a town of about 3,000 in Osage County, Oklahoma. His mother Ruth was a ‘beauty operator’ and his father Bill owned a mechanic shop. He was the second of two boys; his brother Billy was a year older. He had many happy memories of growing up in Hominy; playing in “S_ _ _ creek” behind their house, trying out the horses of varying suitability that their Uncle Bud would drop off for them each summer, attending the big annual Indian pow wows, and enjoying all the pleasures of life in a small town. He was forced to take piano lessons and practice for 10 years, and said he missed out on a lot of fun because of it, but he went on to become the high school pianist and continued to enjoy playing boogie woogie and some favorite classical pieces for most of his life. He was also a member of the high school marching band where he played flute and drums. He learned to crochet from his grandmother “Nanny”, which served him well when in the 70s he quit smoking and wanted to keep his hands busy. It was in Ross’s nature that when he did something, he really did it. The net result was a lot of afghans... at least one for every family member.
Summers in Hominy brought the arrival of the traveling roller rink – and Rossy was a very sought-after partner for skate- dancing. He was a good dancer and would always dance whenever there was an opportunity, and he enjoyed many types of music and dancing. After watching him dance the night away at his 90th birthday party, his brother Bill pointed to his ability as the sign of a wasted youth, and reminded him that although he could never out-dance him, he could still whoop him!
Ross graduated from Hominy High School in 1945, briefly attended Oklahoma State, and then joined his parents in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946, where they had moved to work. While he polished his Spanish, he worked at the Signal Corps, and then found a job with the Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS), part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For the next four years, he was a member of a team that traveled through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru and Bolivia. The team collected data used to map uncharted areas of Central and South America, using triangulation measurements from mountaintops. He made lifelong and cherished friends while working for IAGS, and had the kind of adventures you’d wish for and expect of a young man in his early twenties. He came home with a lifetime of tales to tell.
In 1948 he met Bea, a native of the Panama Canal Zone, who was Serendipitously working as a secretary in the IAGS office. Seriously smitten, he proposed to her on their first date. Wisely, she declined, but reconsidered not too long after and they were married in 1951. Following a honeymoon in Medellin, Colombia, they moved to Mexico City, where Ross had transferred with IAGS. They stayed 6 months, and when he left IAGS they made the drive up to California. It was a long drive, and included a segment of night travel which required Bea to lean precariously out of a car with no headlights holding a flashlight to light their way. They made it, and settled in Inglewood, where Bea’s parents had retired from the Canal Zone.
Ross was also drafted into the army in 1951. His basic training was in Fort Lewis, Washington. Bea went up to spend time with him, and for the rest of his life he would talk about the lemon meringue pies she’d baked in a tiny little box oven, and how she’d make two and they’d each eat one. Serendipitously, he became an aide to a colonel in the army that he knew from his time with IAGS, which led to his being posted as a secretary on the Italian Riviera instead of going to Korea. He’d look back on his good fortune and shake his head in amazement.
Their first baby. Felicia was born in October 1954, but he didn’t meet her until he returned in January 1955. Bea had worked as a secretary at Northrop Aircraft Corporation, in Hawthorne, California and again she lighted the way. When he returned from Italy Ross began his long career at Northrop, starting during the era of huge main frame computers and key punch cards. It was in his nature to organize and streamline, and he always had ideas of how to do things more efficiently. (“Ideally, the way you ought to do that, is....”) He loved working at Northrop, and rose to management in Quality Assurances, Information Resource Management. As was his style, he gave it his all; Bea used to remind him he didn’t actually need to stay to mop the floors. His years at Northrop led him to stay current and fluent in the field of computers his whole life, and when the age of the personal computer rolled around, he was the one everyone called for tutorials and troubleshooting. He continuously updated his system at home with the latest and greatest equipment, software, and gadgets available, eager and excited to try the next great innovation.
The young family always lived within driving range of Northrop, sharing the family car for the short commute to work. Their second daughter, Diana, was born in 1957, and they bought their first home in 1958. Friday was payday, and Bea and the girls would pick Ross up from work and they’d go out to dinner at one of their favorite local restaurants, feeding the family for about $5.00. Sundays meant pot roast dinner at Bea’s parents’ house. Ross loved Bea’s folks and they loved him; he was a good-natured and devoted son-in-law. Ross was a great dad; he was playful and loving and genuinely enjoyed the company of young people. He got a real kick out of the girls and their friends, and it went both ways.
When the family moved to nearby El Segundo in 1969, the homeowner sold them the house with strings attached; Ross would first have to agree to become the secretary for El Segundo’s sister city association with Guaymas, Mexico. He did agree, and by 1972 he was president. He also became very involved in local politics and zoning issues, leading the way with referendums and petitions and urging others to attend meetings at City Hall. You always knew what Ross thought should happen, and how things ought to be done.
His days were full with working at Northrop and keeping very busy with local affairs, but he still found time to satisfy his drive to be creative with his hands. He set crocheting afghans aside, and because it was the 70s he found macramé. He was (naturally) all-in. Knotting a few plant hangers quickly led to Ross and Bea giving classes out of their house, and when they ran out of room for all their friends and all the string and all the beads, they decided to open a little shop in town, which they called String N’ Things. There they gave classes and sold anything and everything you could ever want to make your dream macramé project a reality. In fact, their inventory was so substantial that it outlived the heyday of macramé in the 70s, and bins and boxes of jute and beads followed Ross from El Segundo to Arroyo Grande and even on to North Carolina in 2021, (“...Of course I’m packing that! You can’t get rid of that!”) and it was all there exactly when new friends were ready to take it up.
As Ross prepared for his retirement from Northrop, he and Bea spent weekends exploring up and down the California coast. They chose Arroyo Grande, just north of Santa Barbara, one of their favorite family vacation spots. They bought a lot with views of oak trees and sand dunes and the Pacific Ocean, and set out to build their dream house. In 1989 they settled in, and he set up his new home office with the latest and the greatest. He created new stationery and business cards that read “Just Another Beautiful Day in Paradise”. Taking time to regularly walk the Pismo Dunes, picking up sea glass along the way, he was tanned and happy. It was in his nature to stay busy, and to be productive, and straight away, Ross found opportunities to get involved and volunteer in the community. He took his energy and his skills to local organizations, helping them to organize and streamline and become more efficient, and to do things they didn’t know needed doing. For several years, with Bea at his side, he was involved with the Pismo Beach Country-Western Days, an annual country-western dance competition. On any given day, the kitchen table would be stacked with mailers and envelopes that together they’d process (in the most efficient manner) for one organization or another. He also volunteered with the Social Security office, the Public Library, (teaching computer classes) Hospice of San Luis Obispo and was an active member of the Northrop Retirement Club. He devoted much of his time to the South County Historical Society (SCHS), where he played a key role in the online archiving of their collections. He wore many hats there, from docent to board member to newsletter editor to the man wearing overalls and selling popcorn at countless fundraisers and events. He didn’t retire from his duties at SCHS until he was 91. Ross was recognized for his years of volunteer work by many organizations, including RSVP (Retired & Senior Volunteer Program) Volunteer of the Year and Senior Citizen of the Year at the county and state levels.
In addition to retirement, 1989 brought their granddaughter, Natalie. Natalie loved the long weekends spent with her grandparents. With Grandpa, (aka G-Pa or Papa Rossi) that meant many hours together at the beach, on the computer or at the piano, learning crafts, lots of card and game playing, popcorn after dinner, swimming in her pool, and plenty of shared giggles and laughter.
Although his retirement days and evenings were now busy with full-time volunteer work and enjoying visits with friends and family, he always made time for artistic endeavors. The macramé supplies were safely tucked away in the garage, and he had room to immerse himself in a new craft – beading. He became a regular at local bead shops, buying books and beads and everything you could ever want to make your dream beading project a reality. Initially inspired by the Osage Indian motifs he grew up with, he worked on looms and then moved on to weaving (not stringing, he’d be sure to point out!) beautiful jewelry. He taught himself complicated and intricate techniques and patterns, and developed a particular fondness for Swarovski crystals. Once again, he was happy to teach others what he’d learned, and to share his pieces with the world. He printed new business cards, and named his latest venture “Ross of California”. He’d set up tables of his wares at local craft shows, and happily gift them to friends and family. He’d carry at least one wooden cigar box filled with his ever-expanding collection of bracelets and necklaces wherever he went, and cleverly managed to find a way to pull them out. When he stumbled upon the idea of bracelets made entirely of zinc nuts, he always wore one, and if he didn’t have an extra on hand, he’d take it off his wrist and happily give or sell it to anyone who might happen to comment on it. A visit to a gourd farm and festival led to the purchase of a rather generous quantity of large gourds, and a brief side venture into covering their surfaces with detailed designs using wood burning tools.
Around 2007, Bea was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Ross cared for her with tenderness and devotion, bringing in around-the- clock support when he could no longer do so on his own. Their last years together were filled with sweetness and kindness. When she passed away in 2012, Ross remembered the old Panamanian saying “Once you drink from the Chagres River, you will always return”, and he planned a return trip to Panama. Together with his daughters, they scattered Bea’s ashes in the Chagres River. They were married for 51 years.
Living alone now was a big change for Ross, but staying active and involved helped to ease the transition. He began a new chapter, which included new friends and new adventures. Included in it all was his new pup, Sopi, who he taught to “dance, dance, dance” and was always by his side and never left behind. Ross was able to enjoy more travel, including a trip to Buenos Aires and road trips in the U.S. to research family genealogy with Felicia. His good friend Diane Krajsa introduced him to a daily coffee club, which he dubbed “The Red Dirt Gang”. And when Ross responded to a call for temporary housing for members of a visiting acting troupe, Serendipity stepped in and brought him Von Lewis, a young man from North Carolina who just happened to play the piano and beautifully sing the exact kind of music Ross loved. They hit it off immediately, and in spite of the difference in their ages, and because of Ross’s youthful spirit, they became fast friends. He also became Von’s number one fan, and traveled to watch him perform whenever and wherever he could. Much to Ross’s good fortune, his friend Diane loved to drive, and over time they took many road trips together, short and long, many of them to see Von. In the years that followed, Ross grew ever closer to Von, (his “adopted grandson”) his wife Abbey, their first baby Grady, and the rest of Von’s family. He made trips to North Carolina, and they made trips to California. Those ties pulled him to his next adventure; a move to North Carolina.
So, at age 93, Ross bought a home in New Bern, North Carolina. His daughter Diana helped him pack up the home he and Bea had built together in Arroyo Grande. He organized and he labeled, he generated and he revised detailed digital lists and inventories. He gathered up and carefully packed a lifetime’s worth of memories and belongings; furniture, artwork and artifacts picked up in Peru and Bolivia in the 40s, family pieces that had made their way to the Panama Canal zone from faraway places and then on to California, his extensive collection of Guayabera shirts, his bottles of Pisco-sour mix, the china cabinet filled with treasures he and Bea had inherited and collected, the coin collection that might someday be worth something, carousels of slides and boxes of family photos, old and fragile 78 records engraved with the soundtrack of his life, his latest and greatest computer equipment and gadgets, bins of jute and cord, large gourds he would find time to decorate, boxes and boxes of tiny, beautiful beads, copious amounts of pens and paints and paper and supplies needed for his newest artistic endeavors; Zentangles and dot painting, and his latest business cards, now artfully designed with the words “Zentangles by Ross”. In the month that he spent preparing for the move to North Carolina, there was never a hint of doubt or nostalgia - just excitement and energy and optimism; an impatience to get going and to get there and to settle in to the next exciting chapter; open to whatever Serendipity had in store for him.
Ross had plans to live to 100, but shortly after his move, he learned he had stage four liver cancer. His family and friends rushed to be with him. He told them he didn’t want a memorial service, and instead wanted to enjoy the celebration of his life. A beautiful gathering took place in the back yard of his new home. He was surrounded by people who loved him dearly. The air was filled with his favorite music, courtesy of Von and Abbey. He danced and he laughed and he cried. Words of deep gratitude and appreciation were exchanged. There were tears, and there was light, and there was love. Two weeks later, Ross passed away, with loved ones at his side.
For many years, Ross and Bea held season tickets to The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville, a small local theatre near Arroyo Grande that put on musicals, comedies and classic melodramas in a cabaret setting. At each show, the host would turn up the house lights, and ask members of the audience to raise their hand if they were celebrating a birthday. The host would work their way around the room, asking each person their name, and what birthday they were celebrating. Some people were too shy to raise their hands, and their seatmate would have to raise a hand for them, or point to them. After everyone had been called on, the whole audience would sing the happy birthday song. Around the time of his 90th birthday, Ross began a new tradition and became well known by cast members, because at every performance, when the birthday question came around, Ross couldn’t wait to stand up, and to loudly and proudly proclaim, “My name is Ross, and it’s not my birthday, but I’m 90 years old, and I celebrate every day!”
Ross was an inspiration to many. He stayed young even as he grew old, defying stereotypes and expectations. He was always fun to be around, loved good music and good company of all ages, movie theater popcorn with extra butter and a good margarita -on-the-rocks-with-salt. He always had great stories to tell, and was just as eager to hear yours. We will remember him for his bright and sparkly personality, his youthful spirit, his positive outlook, his openness to adventure, his propensity to laugh until he cried, and the generosity and support he gave to each of us who were lucky enough to be loved by him. As a parent, he was famous for saying “Do as I say, not as I do!”. But there are at least a few of us who will try very hard to do exactly as he did, and to live each day fully right up until the end.
Please enjoy the video below, titled "Celebrating Ross"