Peter James McKenna Jr. lost his eyes and two fingers in combat during World War II when a tank shell exploded in his face.
But the life-altering injuries didn’t beat him. McKenna recovered after enduring painful surgeries and went on to counsel scores of other veterans suffering from their own battle scars at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center at Fort Snelling.
“He never had any disabilities, ” said his daughter Mary Catherine McKenna. “It was like, ‘Well, you still have a brain that works. You still have legs that work. ... Look at what you can do, not what you can’t do.’ ” And so he kind of went through life with that attitude.”
McKenna died at a nursing home in Bloomington on April 3. He was 88.
Born in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 24, 1924, McKenna enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. He served as an anti-tank gunner in Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, 80th Infantry Division, fighting in France, Belgium and Germany. In Germany, McKenna was injured by the tank shell. He spent nearly two years hospitalized before being discharged.
It was during his stay at a VA hospital in Washington that he fell in love with the woman who nursed him back to health, Mary John. The two married in 1949 and eventually had nine children. Around this time, McKenna also enrolled at Catholic University in Washington. With help from reading aides, McKenna graduated from the school in 1952.
In 1954, the couple moved to Mary John’s native Minnesota and settled in Richfield, where they opened the Marion Shop, a Catholic gift store that sold rosaries, statues, prayer cards and related items. During this time, McKenna attended the University of Minnesota, earning a master’s degree in psychology.
In 1966, McKenna began running a convenience store at Minneapolis City Hall, where he served thousands of city workers. It was there he earned the moniker “the singing blind man” because he loved singing Irish songs while he worked, said his daughter.
“He was very self-sufficient,” she said. “He took the bus downtown to his job at City Hall. ... So he didn’t really rely on people doing anything for him. Half of my friends growing up didn’t even realize he was blind because he could do everything.”
“He also had quite the sense of humor. At the nursing home his last week of life, one of the nurses asked how many kids he had. And he said, ‘Nine. So far.’ ” My mom kind of raised her eyebrows like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
After running the convenience store for nearly 10 years, McKenna was able to put his counseling training to work; he was hired as a benefits counselor at the VA at Fort Snelling until he retired in 1989.
McKenna was also able to travel much of the world as a member of the nonprofit, cultural exchange program Friendship Force.
Besides his wife, Mary, and daughter Mary Catherine, McKenna is survived by seven of his children; 19 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Services have already been held.