- David Schick For the AJC
At a gathering to celebrate the life of Michael Kettle, he was described as having “a quiet confidence inherent from extreme competence.” His sister agreed: “That is a perfect way to describe him.”
On a typical day for Kettle, his wife Gidget said, he would get up in the morning to wake up the kids. Then, he’d make two kinds of smoothies for his girls’ breakfast. Some days he and his wife would attend a fitness class, other days Kettle would work out in his basement before getting ready for work. On occasion, he and his wife would have lunch together somewhere near his office. And in the evening, he would come home and have dinner with the family before he relaxed and fell asleep on the couch watching TV.
“Mike was exactly what people needed him to be,” Heather Layton, Kettle’s sister, said. “He was my big brother who protected his little sister from the neighborhood bully. He was the brother I could crawl in bed with, as a child, if I had bad dreams. After we grew up, he was the voice of reason when I needed the extra encouragement to get through a hard situation.”
James Michael Kettle was born Oct. 18, 1964 in Omaha, Neb., and died Oct. 27 in Atlanta at age of 52 after a yearlong battle with colon cancer. Donations in Mike’s memory can be made to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory Healthcare.
Among the many values he exemplified was devotion to his family. “This was constant and visible to all,” said friend Leslie Stigaard. She recalls a birthday party Kettle planned for Gidget. With the “huge crowd” of his wife’s family and friends watching, “his toast about how they met, and how he fell in love with her was sweet, funny and extremely open,” Stigaard said. “The openness of such personal feelings was not something I often saw in Mike. But that night, you could literally feel the emotions he has for Gidget.”
Kettle often treated friends like family. Dana Chambliss, a close friend, said she and her family “most admired” Mike’s quiet willingness to help anyone. “Our family lost my husband almost 14 years ago when my boys were so very small, just 18 months and 5 years old,” Chambliss said. “Mike never had a second thought about including us in their lives, or stepping in whenever I needed him to talk about things that dads spoke with sons about.”
Layton added a “quality that made him incredibly special” was that he never put himself first. “He wanted to live not just for himself, but more for his family, friends and colleagues.”
Kettle graduated in 1987 from the University of Delaware where he majored in business and finance, then started a career with Merrill Lynch in Frederick, Md. During his junior year in college he’d met Peggy Catherine Zurkowski, affectionately known as Gidget. They dated the rest of their college days and married on April 28, 1990. That year, Mike decided to make a career change from finance to law. They moved to South Bend, Ind., where he graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 1993. He joined the law firm of Constangy, Brooks and Smith in Atlanta.
He spent 18 years with Rooms to Go, Inc. as vice president and general counsel. Gidget said, “He was proud of his work at Rooms to Go, it was like family to him.” Colleagues described him as “an integral part of RTG’s success,” and credited him with helping the company grow from two stores in Florida to over 150 stores in 10 states.
“He possessed a tireless work ethic and an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide variety of topics,” Paul McCarthy, his colleague, said. “He had tremendous legal acumen and always showed sound business judgment.” He added that “all the employees knew” they could depend on Kettle. “And he treated everyone with courtesy and respect, which is why he was so universally admired.”
From “ripping it” on dirt bikes and motorcycles, to his legal and business savvy, his friend Eero Maki described him as a “man’s man” who grew up working with his hands and was well read.
His wife said he was a peacemaker, protective of his family, and never afraid to stand up for what he believed in.