Editor’s note: Each Monday, the Kenosha News takes a look at the life of a Kenosha County resident who has recently died. We share with you, through the memories of family and friends, a life remembered.
Corky Niemi was fun, the life of the party.
“He was a bit of a rascal,” noted his wife, Cathy. “Actually, he was a spirited guy who loved people, vacations and doing things.”
Living life fully, he loved golfing, skiing on water and snow, involving himself in community organizations and dedicating himself to his 42-year career at Snap-on tools.
“Those were his passions and he was good at them; if he did something he was going to be good at it,” Cathy said.
Modeling lessons of “how to get ahead in this world and to have fun while doing it all,” was “an example of fatherhood,” said Corky’s son, Ross.
“The things he loved in order of importance: family, friends, Snap-on, water and mountains, golf, fun,” Ross said.
He had many chapters of a life he wrote himself—up to and including authoring his own obituary, Cathy said.
Clarence “Corky” Niemi, Jr., 84, passed away July 20, at the Hospice Alliance Hospice House, after a nine-and-a-half year battle with cancer. Surviving him are his wife, Catherine; son, Ross (Jill) Niemi; grandsons, Ethan and John Philip “JP” Niemi; his sister, Nance McClain and other relatives.
Clarence was born in Kenosha, Jan. 19, 1935, the son of Clarence and Mary Niemi. Because his father was also named Clarence, he adopted the nickname “Corky,” said Cathy.
In high school he became interested in photography and after graduating from Bradford High School in 1952 was hired by Snap-on as a photographer’s assistant. That job soon transitioned into a full-time position with the company.
Snow, water skiing
Corky also discovered snow and water skiing when he was in high school. Those interests grew and he shared them with others. “He just went out and did them ‘til he got good,” Cathy said.
At a party with the ski club called the Ski-Noshans Corky met Cathy Trebec. They married Sept. 20, 1969.
For the first eight years of their marriage Corky and Cathy lived in Kenosha. They then built a home in Wheatland where they lived until 2012.
Corky and Cathy filled their vacation time with trips boating at Lake of the Ozarks and skiing in the Colorado Rockies, often with friends from Kenosha. They also bought and refurbished a cabin on Paddock Lake.
“To maximize time in the water in the Ozarks, he would drive straight through (from Wisconsin),” Ross said.
He taught his son and his sons’ friends how to water and snow ski. “He was a good teacher,” Cathy said.
Another activity begun as a youth and continued through his life was golf. “He grew up on the Muni Golf Course and excelled at the sport,” Ross said.
As his son learned to golf, Corky helped organize a youth golf outing for Ross and his friends through their parish, St. Alphonsus, New Munster.
Made wine together
In addition to athletic pursuits, Corky enjoyed being creative. For several years he and friend Bob Ventura made wine together, procuring wine grapes and equipment from Illinois. Corky designed a label for their product he dubbed ‘Bob ‘N Cork.’ “
“Those bottles ended up being $100 bottles of wine, joked Cathy. “Sometimes it was good; sometimes they dumped the whole batch.”
Also important to Corky was civic connection, said Cathy. He was a member of the original Kenosha Economic Development Group, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of the 306 Club and, in his own words, “a proud 40-year member of the Western Kiwanis Club of Kenosha.”
Corky and friends from the Western Kiwanis formed a golfing group who called themselves the “Potts” group, referring to the pot of money to which they all contributed for drinks and meals during the outings.
Corky was a good friend and generous person, said family.
“He didn’t want to go to the most expensive restaurant; he wanted to be sure to have the money to leave a huge tip,” Ross said.
As Corky’s job at Snap-on evolved from advertising to management, the Niemi house filled with Snap-On swag, from beach towels to clothing, noted Cathy. “We got kidded about our Snap-on collection.’ “
Over the years the company also called on Corky’s institutional wisdom to help establish a museum at its Kenosha headquarters, noted Cathy. Corky donated his own tools to the museum and helped collect items from retired CEOs.
In the 1980s, Corky facilitated donations of tools and toolboxes from Snap-on to the Wisconsin-based Rawhide Boys Ranch, whose programs include vehicle repair.
“He gave (administrators) a Snap-on a catalog and helped (the Ranch) get everything it needed,” Cathy said.
“He left his imprint on many,” Ross said.
Corky retired in 1995 and continued doing what he loved for the next 14-plus years.
In recent years, however, Corky needed to focused on managing his cancer.
At some point, Corky shared with Cathy that he felt bad that they were spending so much of their time dealing with his illness.
Cathy says she responded, “Are you kidding? With all the stuff we’ve done? We’ve had a great life!”
See more photos with this story online at kenoshanews.com.