Meet Kenneth “Cowboy” Cantrell, Carillon of Huntersville’s original Cowboy
While he never bucked a bronco or herded cattle, Kenneth “Cowboy” Cantrell is living proof that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.
When his wife, Daphene—a former state district court judge—died in 2011 after 55 years of marriage, Cantrell faced a crucial choice: give up or embrace life. His responded by buying a Stetson hat, cowboy boots, western belt buckle, bolo tie, and a Mustang adorned with a “Cowboy 3” license plate. The latter is an affectionate nod to his three daughters. “He said, ‘I can sit here and wither away or choose to stay alive and be here for my daughters and grandchildren,’” says his youngest daughter, Allison Allen. “He said, ‘I’m staying alive because of my daughters and grandchildren.’”
“Cowboy Cantrell inspires everyone he meets,” says Richard Seifried, Executive director of Carillon Assisted Living’s Huntersville facility. “He has led a great life for all to learn from.”
That life began in the Great Depression in 1931. Cantrell was the youngest of six children born to a farming family in the foothills of western North Carolina. (Ironically, Daphene was the youngest of 10 children).
Cantrell was raised believing that you don’t expect anything from anyone, that you work for what you want and you never take more than you need. He imparted those lessons to his daughters. “He and momma always stressed education as being important, and the ability to be independent,” says Susan Kinzler, chief financial officer and vice president of Health Stat Inc. of Charlotte. “He taught us resilience. His father died when he was nine years old.” He also taught them the value of supporting your spouse. Cantrell was in the Air Force when he met Daphene, one of only three children in her family to go to college (and law school).
Leaving the military so his future family wouldn’t be subjected to the rigors of constant travel, Kenneth became a master mechanic for Mecklenburg County and later a landscape engineer. Yet through it all he remained in the background to allow his wife to shine. After running a successful law practice, Daphene was appointed to the administrative office of the court system. She later became a district court judge, spending the last 20 years of her career on the bench. “He was so proud of her,” Allen says. “I remember many times when there would be a snowstorm and the clerks (mostly women) would be afraid to drive to work. My father would take mother to work and as many people on the way as he could, then go back and get more.”
In addition, Kenneth cared for a brother who had been partially paralyzed by a bullet to the head near the end of World War II. He and Daphene regularly drove quite a distance to visit his brother. “We all learned that dedication and devotion watching our parents,” Kinzler says.
While Kenneth’s health has left him unable to craft stained glass or model airplanes, he still enjoys gardening and maintaining the faith he passed to his family. Allen says her father taught her to trust in God and love Him first, family second and yourself last—no matter how far down the list you had to go. “Even at 85 and in his current state he doesn’t mince words,” Allen says with a chuckle. “He’s a man of few words but you listen to them. He has this strength about him, even though it’s a quiet strength.”
However long Kenneth lives, his daughters hope that people remember their father as a decent father and husband despite his flaws. When they discussed his final directives recently, he told Kinzler he didn’t want any roses planted—meaning he didn’t want only one side of the story told. “People have these funerals and you’d think they were perfect,” he said. “I want people to know the truth. You preach your funeral sermon every day you walk.” Allen can already envision Kenneth’s entrance into heaven. “I’m positive he will hear those famous words you hear in the Bible, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’” Allen says. “I can bet my farm on that one.”
on November 10, 2016