On a November afternoon in Detroit, 12-year-old Mike Kowall was finding it hard to concentrate at school. His mind kept returning to thoughts of the upcoming weekend and the following week. It would be a short week, with no school on Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Young Mike couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving. The Kowall family, which included Mike’s mom and dad and his two younger brothers and younger sister, would either celebrate at home with cousins, aunts and uncles, or they would all head to an aunt and uncle’s house and celebrate there.
Either way, Thanksgiving was preceded by days of cooking and baking and other holiday preparations.
“There were no store-bought alternatives to much of what we ate. Everything was from scratch,” Kowall recalls today. “So our food was hard-fought.”
Anticipation would rise as the aroma of baking bread permeated the house. On Thanksgiving morning, the family would be up early and head to the Detroit Parade. On the way home, they would stop for hot Vernors or hot chocolate.
When they arrived at their Thanksgiving destination — their home or a relative’s — the whole house would smell of turkey roasting in the oven. Then they would wait for the relatives to arrive.
“It was a real traditional, wonderful Thanksgiving,” Kowall said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
But that particular Friday afternoon at school was different. A school official came into the classroom to talk to the teacher, disrupting the lesson. Mike’s teacher was visibly upset. Then she delivered the news that would change Mike’s life — and a nation — forever: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
Kowall remembers the day vividly.
“Of course, we were sent home from school early,” he said, “My mother was making fruitcakes, and she was crying. But she couldn’t stop baking. I remember she was upset with me because I had eaten all of the dried apricots, and she needed more for her fruitcakes. So she sent me to the store to get some more.
“In the midst of that horrible tragedy, my mother and father maintained a sense of normalcy for us. Life goes on, and we had to carry on.”
The importance of tradition, family, and thankfulness carried the Kowalls through the Thanksgiving of 1963 and beyond.
It’s those same values that Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, treasures today.
“Looking back to the original reason for the holiday, Thanksgiving means being grateful and giving thanks,” Kowall said. “It is being grateful for the many blessings we have in this state and country, and it is being thankful for family and understanding the importance of family.”
Kowall is thankful for the many wonderful memories of Thanksgiving as a youth. He was born in the city of Detroit at 18th and Buchanan, down by the old Tiger Stadium, and he was raised on St. Marys Street in northwest Detroit. He remembers that time fondly.
“We not only had the Eastern Market, but at that time we had the Western Market as well,” he said. “That was a wholesale market. You could buy a live turkey directly from farmers and dispatch it yourself. But Dad had enough of that growing up on a farm.”
He remembers the traditional Thanksgiving meals of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and homemade breads.
“My aunt was famous for her pumpkin pies. Mom was famous for her homemade whipped cream. The dark meat from the turkey was always the best. And then, the next day, having turkey sandwiches with gravy on top. It doesn’t get much better than that — but I never did like cranberry sauce.”
Kowall and his wife Eileen strive to maintain Thanksgiving traditions with their family — a task made more difficult with their two daughters and two grandchildren living out of state.
“Thanksgiving will be at our house this year,” he said. “The tradition will continue. Of course, as the family evolves, the tradition evolves. But, as always, no matter what, we begin the meal by saying grace, and giving thanks to God for his many blessings.”