Leon Vellinga – The uncle I almost didn’t get to know


Here is the story of how I learned of Leon (my Uncle) and his family. Some parts I am sure that I have messed up on timelines and things but I did the best I could remember.

A couple years ago, my mom, who passed away last May, had told me that she was contacted by either by Leon or his wife Kathy. I believe she had said by email. In the email it was said that looking over Leon’s birth certificate that his birth mother was listed with my grandmothers name. I don’t think a father was named. After some sleuthing, Kathy/Leon found my moms contact information. Kathy/Leon were reaching out to see if there were siblings of his and if there were, were they still alive, and if so, would they have any interest in getting to know him as he definitely had an interest in finding anything out abut his birth family.

When mom told me of this I was leery. I immediately thought of some sort of scam whereby a person gets some personal information by pretending to be my moms long lost brother and then plays on her sympathies to get money out of her. That was my first thought and I counseled mom not to give too much information and certainly no money. (Yes – overprotective son – sue me!)

Over the next several months they continued to talk and struck up a long distance friendship over the phone. As it became apparent that Leon seemed to be the genuine article and that he had nothing but the best intentions, they had struck up a friendship that eventually led to Leon making the trip to Portland to meet mom in person. After that, they spoke on the phone regularly.

Before the summer of 2014, knowing my wife’s band (The Power Pep Band) was set to play in the Tillamook Dairy Festival, I contacted Leon and spoke with him on the phone for the very first time. At the conclusion of the conversation, it was decided we would stop over at Leon’s home and meet him and his family, which included his wife Kathy, daughters Shelly and Kerry and their husbands and some grandchildren.

All too soon we were in Tillamook, the parade was over and the band was back at the parade staging area preparing to make our way to Leon’s home. GPS told us we were surprisingly close to Leon’s home (less than 2 miles I think). Soon we were pulling into the driveway of Leon’s home. As we drove up I got to see Leon for the very first time. He was neither big nor small, thin nor fat, he simply was regular looking man. I am not sure what I expecting to see. What I was greeting with pleased me very much. He looked like a man that had spent his life working. He had laugh lines and was thinning a bit but altogether looked like a person that had experienced life.

As we got out of the car and we all introduced ourselves and handshakes were made he showed us into his home and introduced us to his wife Kathy. While we were visiting, Leon showed us around the farm, told of his growing up all his life in Tillamook (after being adopted at 1) and eventually met with and talked business with a friend who had come over to talk about buying an aluminum boat ramp to replace his wooden one that had seen better days. Afterwards we took a short drive out the the fishing hole where his boat was moored and his friends boat ramp was clearly visible from Leon’s. It was not looking too good.

After the fishing hole was left, we took a short trip[ around where he showed me a bit of this and that. He had some story to tell about most things around. Clearly this was his home. After our trip concluded, we headed back to Leon’s house and had some vittles and talked with one another, waiting for Shelly and her husband to arrive. Time flew with the pleasant company and soon enough we were saying goodbye with the promise of stopping by again soon. We never did make it back.

Afterwards I spoke with Leon, Kathy and Kerry via email but we never really made plans to specifically meet up again. I guess life just works that way sometimes.

Mom passed on May 17th 2015. I called and broke the news to Leon. Later, when I called again with the date and time of the service we spoke for a while and he opened up and told me after the previous call, he cried. I never really understood how a person could bond so quickly with someone they never really knew and be moved to tears after their passing. He also said that he wasn’t going to be able to make mom’s service (which at the time I found strange and a little insulting if I am being honest) because his grandsons last drag-race was on the same day. I was confused but let it pass.

Late last year I received an email from Kerry, saying that Leon was in the hospital (St. Vincent’s) in Portland and that the prognosis was not good. Leon had had health issues for a long while and they were catching up with him. This might be the last time to see him. I made my way to see him in the hospital and think I startled both he and his wife Kathy when I poked my head in his room. I sat and we spoke for a brief period of time. His fighting spirit beat back whatever it was that had him laid up and he was soon back at home.

A month ago I received the sad news that Leon had gone back into the hospital and after some time had slipped into a coma and peacefully passed away.  I was stunned. Details were given about the service and three weeks later (two weekends ago) my wife and I found ourselves at the service for the uncle I had only met once.

The service was a remembrance of the life Leon had made for himself in Tillamook. How he had been a track star in high-school, had life-long friends, how he married and had kids and grand-kids. One after another, family and friends shared their stories of and about Leon. I shared mine too but I had not planned on speaking so my saying he was my uncle threw people when I didn’t fully explain how that was. I was so moved by the shear volume of people that came forward to speak, not just his fishing buddies but by people that he had inspired, one of which became a large animal veterinarian, but the volume of high-school kids that came up to speak about how he was like an adopted grandfather of theirs.

It took the stories and remembrances of all these people to make sense of why Leon wouldn’t make the service of my mom. Leon was all about family, and although mom was his sister, it was only for a very brief period of time and he had been a grandfather all of his grandsons life. I think the choice was easy for him make. Some of us wouldn’t make the same choice or even understand why Leon made it the way he did but knowing Leon a little better now, ironically after he passed away, I think I do understand. He was a family man. He was put up for adoption at the age of 1 and was raised by people that really wanted him. That ideal was instilled in him and when he decided to have a family of his own he devoted himself to his family 100%. I can respect that.

I think I will try to live a little bit more like I believed Leon did. Love your family and your neighbors. Talk a little trash when it comes to sports and greet people with a ready smile. Wait a minute, I think I do most of those already. Maybe the bond of family we had was closer than I originally thought.

I loving memory

Leon Kent Vellinga

June 22nd, 1947 – January 15th 2016

Peace to you all!

More to come…

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1 Response to Leon Vellinga – The uncle I almost didn’t get to know

  1. Kathy Vellinga says:

    James – Thank you so much for understanding Leon’s reason for not attending your Mom’s funeral. As it turns out, that race was the one and only race that he was able to see Nathan in and I am so glad he was able to and that Nathan has that memory of his Grandpa being there. Leon thought the world of your Mom and they became fast friends from the first time they talked. I wish they had met when they were both younger and healthier. Also, thank you so much for speaking at his memorial service. It meant so much and I was so happy that you did. I wish we could have had more time to talk afterward. But life goes on and we are all adjusting to our new “normal”. Please stay in touch. Kathy


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