Three schools in Perham, Minn., got an unexpected Christmas gift when they were notified recently of a $1 million donation left to them by a woman who grew up in the area.
But little was known about their benefactor, Deloris “Dee” Barnack Kenner, who left $750,000 to the Perham-Dent Public School District and $125,000 each to St. Paul’s Lutheran School and St. Henry’s Area School, a Catholic elementary.
So officials of the foundation administering Kenner’s gift put out the word that they’d like friends or relatives of the donor to come forward and tell them a bit more about the generous giver.
Now, one who knew Kenner well has stepped up.
“She was my very, very best friend. She was the most wonderful person I had in my life,” said Dorothy Kvitek, 87, of Lino Lakes. Kvitek said she and Kenner became friends 70 years ago when they were both young women from small towns living in the Twin Cities.
Kenner had graduated from high school in Perham, Kvitek in Forest Lake, which was then a rural area. Both came to St. Paul and lived at the Catholic Guild Hall on Marshall Avenue, a kind of dormitory for young Catholic working women. They quickly bonded, Kvitek said.
“Deloris and I always thought alike,” she said. “We were always roaming, wanting to go. She was just a fun person. She was the kind of person who liked to be on the go, to do things. And my mother always said I was born with luggage in my hands.”
Both got jobs working in the state Revenue Department. They later spent a summer working together in Glacier National Park, but Kenner had her sights set elsewhere.
“She was always thinking of her next venture or goal,” Kvitek said. Kenner eventually left Minnesota for nursing school in Iowa, where she earned a degree as a licensed practical nurse. She moved to Chicago and went to work for an eccentric older doctor whom she married when she was 30 years old. He was 69.
“I tried to talk her out of it,” Kvitek said. “But she wrote me a letter and said, ‘I’m going to marry an older man,’ so that was that.”
Dr. William Kenner, her new husband, had started a private charitable hospital in Chicago in the 1930s. By the time Deloris Barnack married him, he was embroiled in a bitter, long-running battle with the IRS over personal income taxes and revenue from his hospital. At various times, Kenner acted as his own attorney and was scolded by judges for mounting what they called a “continuing legal drama.” After many appeals, his tax lawsuits ended in the 1970s.
The couple had no children. Kenner lived to the age of 99, Kvitek said, and after his death, Dee Kenner moved back to Minnesota, where she lived in a home in Perham and later in a Detroit Lakes condominium. She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the years immediately before her death at 86 in 2015.
Though Kvitek and Kenner were in touch until the end, Kvitek said her friend never said a word about leaving money in her will. But the donation isn’t surprising, she added.
“She loved life,” Kvitek said. “She was outgoing, she was talkative and she loved people.”