The death earlier today of stuntman Evil Knievel at the age of 69 reminded me of a time years ago when I knew Knievel's oldest son, Kelly. Now, this isn't really a brush with greatness, but more of a brush with someone who was the son of greatness. Or something like that...
My good friend, Todd Bishop, was living out in Las Vegas and I'd always see him when I'd go out for the Consumer Electronics Show during the 80's and 90's. It turned out that Todd worked for Kelly Knievel as one of Knievel's top managers at a telemarketing company in Las Vegas. Todd and Kelly would regularly play golf together as both were very accomplished golfers.
Kelly wasn't the daredevil Knievel brother that followed in his father's footsteps. That was Robbie Knievel (right). Kelly was definitely the more "buttoned-down" of the two brothers. I understand from Todd that Kelly and Robbie had a "love-hate" relationship for a number of years do to a number of factors, but the last report I had a few years back was that they were on speaking terms again.
I met Kelly during one of my times in Vegas and he seemed like a real down to earth guy. I never really asked him about his dad - I figured enough people did that.
(As an aside, years ago I met a guy who worked at an audio store in Minneapolis by the name of Steve Raitt. Steve was a very nice guy and he would always see me at trade shows and we'd talk. In the 90's, Steve had a cancerous brain tumor and it knocked him out of commission for awhile. He was able to beat it and slowly got himself healthy again.
In 2001, Bonnie Raitt played a benefit concert in conjunction with the American Cancer Society at the CEDIA Expo in Indianapolis. I didn't go see her play that night, but a friend of mine did. He told me, "Steve even got up and sang a couple songs with Bonnie last night."
I said, "Steve? Steve who?"
He looked at me funny and said, "Steve Raitt, Bonnie's brother."
I stood there for a long second and finally realized a guy that I'd known for over 15 years was Bonnie Raitt's brother. He was such a quiet and unassuming guy that I would have never put two and two together that Steve and Bonnie Raitt were brother and sister. And Steve even performed on a number of Bonnie's albums.)
In any event, I got to know Kelly and he was a good guy. When Todd got married back in Newton, IA in 1991, Kelly came back for the wedding. A bunch of us were out at a bar in Newton and Kelly was kind of hanging with me because other than Todd, I was about the only other person there he knew. And of course, a lot of the local people there that night knew well in advance that Kelly Knievel was Evil's son. Many of them were coming up and asking Kelly about his dad and sort of making a nuisance of themselves.
After awhile, Kelly and I were sitting at the bar and I asked, "Does it bug you when these people are coming up and ask you about your dad like that?"
Kelly said, "No, not really. I really admire what dad has done. I don't get tired of talking about him one bit."
Kelly paused for a moment and then he said, "You know, I've known you for, what, two or three years now? And you've never asked me about my dad."
I told Kelly that whenever I've met someone famous or someone who was related to someone famous, I'd never ask questions about the part of being famous. I'd rather get to know them as to who they really are, because I found that most famous people are like normal people - except they have a talent that normal people don't have.
He sat there for a second and said, "That's a good way to look at it. I honestly don't mind to talk about my dad, but it's also good to get to know someone who isn't trying to climb through me to get to my dad."
I saw Kelly one other time after that wedding weekend in Newton. Not long after that, Kelly and his company got in some hot water with their telemarketing practices. Todd divorced his wife that he married in Newton and moved to Reno soon thereafter.
I was looking through the Internet this evening looking up stories on Evil Knievel's death and I found a couple quotes from Kelly Knievel and it brought back the memories of hanging with him, even for just a short time. Kelly said about his dad, "His courage and determination as an individual to form his own identity, I think that was his strongest characteristic. He was a man, a self-determined man."
Kelly also said, "I think he lived 20 years longer than most people would have (after so many injuries). I think he willed himself into an extra five or six years."
Kelly was also interviewed on NPR earlier today. Click here to hear that interview. I think you'll be able to get a good snapshot of how Kelly revered his father in that interview. He was certainly proud of his dad when I knew him years ago and he's just as proud today talking about his father's life.