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Joe Kendall paints ceramic penguin.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
"Shuttle" Joe Kendall took up ceramics as a hobby during his time at McMurdo Station, creating a brood of penguins for his family. The 78-year-old Illinois farmer tried for six years to get down to the Ice, finally netting a job as a shuttle driver. He says he would like to return next season.

Perseverance pays off

Kendall doesn't see a reason to slow down because of age

The opportunity to come to Antarctica was just one in a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, as far as “Shuttle” Joe Kendall is concerned.

But it’s an opportunity that the 78-year-old Illinois farmer pursued for six years. His perseverance netted him a position this summer season as a shuttle driver at McMurdo Station. Because of the opportunity to get out of town and to meet most everyone who passes through, his is one of the more coveted support jobs in the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Kendall was certainly well qualified for the job, aside from the decades he’s spent navigating heavy machinery and tractors around his family farm. For most of the last 11 summers on the flip side of the world, at Glacier National Park, he has worked as a “gear-jammer” — a tour bus operator.

It was something of a dream job for him in 1949 and 1950, when he worked at the park as a dishwasher and busboy while studying agriculture. But, he says, only college students pursuing medical or law degrees could qualify to be a gear-jammer, so named because of the grinding of gears that echoed around the mountains as the buses jumped up and down the park roads.

“I fell in love with the mountains,” Kendall says. “Thought I might want to spend my life in the mountains, because of the atmosphere, and everything is just magical.” But he was a “born farmer,” and couldn’t easily give up that destiny.

“From my earliest concept in life, I wanted to farm,” he says. “I love the smell of the soil, the smell of the livestock, so I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” And that’s what he did for the next several decades, after a two-year stint in the Army that thankfully sent him to Germany for his tour of duty and not Korea, which was embroiled in one of the bloodier outbursts of the Cold War.

Kendall made sure he didn’t leave for his assignment without putting an engagement ring on the finger of his high school sweetheart, Geri. They married only a month after he got back from Europe in 1953 — on his birthday. “It’s the best birthday present I ever got,” he says.

Working the farm was a lifestyle, never a job, Kendall maintains, even when the economy of the 1980s put the squeeze on the family-sized farm and he had to reinvent the operation to survive.

“You just couldn’t make any money,” he recalls. So he joined with neighbors in something akin to a cooperative. “It helped me save my farm. Otherwise, I would have dried up and blown away economically. It was a tough time. And it changed my way of life. Farming is a way of life.”

Ever the stoic philosopher, he adds, “I look back at those really tough times, impossible times, in running a business, as being the best times, because it did the most for me.”

That work ethic and belief has followed him 7,000 miles to the seventh continent. At McMurdo, where fashion is torn Carhartt overalls and neck gaiters that double as wooly hats, Kendall goes to work in slacks and a button-up shirt. Short but spry, he sports a white handlebar mustache and punctuates his sentences with the word “see,” with nothing more strong than “dang” ever coming out of his mouth.

The story of how he finally ended up in Antarctica makes more turns than it takes to navigate all of McMurdo. Kendall stops to talk about his lifelong romance with Geri, even through their brief separation before they got engaged. He decided playing the field just wasn’t for him: “I can remember as plain as if it happened yesterday, I absolutely could not give up the thought of not having one more date with Geri.”

The couple will celebrate their 55th anniversary together in New Zealand after Kendall leaves the Ice in February.

He lingers for a time on his tour of duty in Europe, only six years removed from the most devastating war in history. He recalls his equally active father, who didn’t quit farming until he turned 75, but then succumbed to the belief that if you reach an older age you should start acting old.

Kendall says he subscribes to a different attitude. “Just because of my age, I’m not a decrepit old man,” he says, as if anyone would be under such a delusion. “[Watching my father] was a very interesting learning experience for me in regard to growing old. … If I can avoid some of that feeling and attitude, it would just make life better for me.”

That spirit found him back at Glacier after nearly 50 years. There, he met someone who had worked in Antarctica. The idea and sense of adventure intrigued Kendall, and after six years of applications, interviews, alternative spots and treadmill tests that proved he was healthier than men 20 years younger, he got his chance this summer.

He admits it took some time to wrap his tongue around the lingo, to navigate so far from his comfort zone. But he did it — and he may do it again. The one-shot, once-in-a-lifetime experience seems to suit this farmer-turned-gear-jammer (never mind that the vehicles are automatic).

“I’m thinking now. I want to do something now. I want to do my best now, because I don’t know about next year,” he says. “I think attitude is the most important thing in our lives.”

Kendall’s attitude has certainly endeared him to the rest of his fellow drivers, according to Kris Kornegay, Shuttles supervisor.

“It’s great to have another perspective on life to share with others, and I think we all value Joe’s knowledge and enthusiasm,” she said. “When he’s not putting us all to shame doing push-ups, he’s interjecting his wisdom into our daily conversations.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs