In September 1999, Kenneth Stearns was riding his motorcycle through Meriden, Kansas, when a truck pulled out in front of him.
“All I remember on the accident is the truck when he pulled out in front of me, and I had to brake and turn, and as soon as I braked, I lost everything," he says. "I don’t remember anything after that.”
Kenny was thrown from his bike and his head hit the pavement. At the hospital he was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain Injury. Doctors told his family if Kenny survived, it would be with permanent brain damage.Sitting there in the hospital at 38 years old, Kenny was failing the most basic cognitive tests.
“I mean I couldn’t figure out why a square wouldn’t fit into a circle,” he says. “I had an I.Q. of 54, and a 54 I.Q. is unable to handle things on your own, completely.”
Days passed, then weeks, and Kenny did not die. But it was nearly four months after the crash, before he began to show the first real improvement — when he was finally able to recognize that a round peg could only fit in a round hole, not in a square one.
Six months after that milestone, Kenny went back to operating his business — a large, successful retail carpet and flooring store in Topeka, Kansas. But his friends, family and employees noticed that something about Kenny had changed. Before his injury, he’d been known for being a tough, strict boss and pretty full of himself in general.
Patti Ard worked for an associated supplier, and she remembers the first time she met Kenny.
“When we left the store,” Patti says, “I said to my boss, ‘That guy is the most arrogant guy I’ve ever seen; he is an a******.’”
Kenny admits, “I was kind of mean. You didn’t want to cross ways with me if you were my employee. And I was extremely arrogant. A lot of people have told me this, even friends, who still like me. They’d say, ‘You didn’t think you didn’t stink at all.’”
The “new” Kenny was less severe with people, more understanding, and just plain nicer. Patti noticed the difference after running into him more than a year after the accident.
Patti says, “I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s totally different. I mean he’s not arrogant like I thought he was at all. He seems very humble and very friendly . . .’”
Not only was Kenny nicer to her, he wanted to take her out. Eventually she did go out with him, and they dated for three years — something Patti says never would have happened before his accident.
But Kenny’s personality change came with a down side, at least as far as his business was concerned; he just wasn’t as good at his job anymore.
“I think a lot of the reasons why I was so successful in the company is because I was pushy, and I was strong, and I was forceful,” Kenny explains. “I mean the company was not doing as well after I came back and took charge.”
Kenny started imagining a different life for himself, a simpler one, far away from landlocked Kansas. He’d begun to dream about becoming a merchant sailor.
“I’ve always had this love for the water,” he says. “And you know how simple it is living on a boat sailing around the world? It’s pretty simple.”
As a boy, Kenny had spent his summers on boats in Grand Traverse Bay. Then out of high school, he’d served in the coast guard.
So it wasn’t completely out of the blue when Kenny sold his company and moved to Northport, determined to become a merchant seaman.
He took classes at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City. During his free time he’d often watch the ships on Lake Michigan.
“I’d go sit out on Peterson Park and watch the freighters go by. And I would just sit there and say, ‘That’s gonna be me. That’s gonna be me.’”
Kenny’s training took him from Traverse City out to Piney Point, Maryland where, alongside men half his age, he became certified as an able-bodied seaman.
When he was assigned to his first merchant ship, he was forty-five years old.
“I was in love with everything I was doing. I could hardly wait to get up. I felt like a kid . . And you know what, very few people go through their life and will not experience the job they can hardly wait to wake up and do.”
And for this Kenny credits the motorcycle accident that nearly killed him.
“Am I allowed to call it a blessing? It’s really not a . . . being in an accident like that is no blessing,” he says. “But coming out of it and having this type of change of who you are and how you are and how you think was a blessing. It changed who I was for the better. And it really did. I know that’s the way it happened.”
Kenny is semi-retired now. He left the merchant marines in 2013, but looks back on those years as the best of his life.