MONROE -- Clarence R. "Jake" Kohler, whose talents with wood served his employer, La-Z-Boy, as it grew into a postwar furniture giant and his muse as he carved lifelike models of dogs and birds, died Monday in Mercy Memorial Nursing Center. He was 96.
He'd been in declining health, his wife, Roselynn, said.
Mr. Kohler of Frenchtown Township retired in 1983 from the Monroe-headquartered furniture company.
He recounted to family that he did his first wood carving at 17 while quarantined for scarlet fever. He later showed the carved dog figure to La-Z-Boy founders Edward Shoemaker and Edwin Knabusch, and that contributed to his being hired.
"They were impressed by that, because the dog was carved out of a 2-by-4 with a pocket knife," his wife said. "That's pretty hard carving."
He started as a frame assembler and, at the start of World War II, upholstered tank seats. His wartime Army service took him to Europe and the Philippines. He returned afterward to La-Z-Boy and the wood room, of which he became a foreman and supervisor. He worked in product development near the end of his career and made prototypes, some of which were shown at major furniture trade shows.
"La-Z-Boy, it was like a family," his daughter Charlotte Woelmer said. "Mr. Shoemaker and Mr. Knabusch thought Dad could do anything."
Off-duty, he carved dogs, swans, ducks, and eagles. He made hundreds and sold some at woodcarving shows and at Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio. Others were gifts.
"He had a God-given talent. He could look at anything -- you'd show him a picture -- and he could make it," his wife said. He also taught wood carving for a time. He made his children's bedroom furniture.
"We would always say, 'Daddy can fix it,' no matter what it was," his daughter said. "And he could. He could solve problems, whether something mechanical or made out of wood."
He was a dedicated member of Holy Ghost Lutheran Church and, in the 1970s, was chairman of the committee that oversaw construction of the current church.
As a young man he was a catcher on local baseball and softball teams -- including the La-Z-Boy Baseball Team of the Toledo Federation League. He still played racquetball when he was in his 80s and golfed into his 90s. He was a life member of Sandy Creek Golf Course, where he worked as a ranger.
He was born Nov. 8, 1917, to Martha and Herman Kohler, and grew up near Maybee, Mich. He attended school through eighth grade and did odd jobs for neighbors and farmers before Monroe Paper Products hired him.
He married the former Thelma Reinhardt on May 3, 1941. She died May 4, 1984.
Surviving are his wife, Roselynn Kohler, whom he married Nov. 25, 1988; daughters, Charlotte Woelmer and Elaine Kuehnlein; sons, David, Donald, and Paul Kohler; stepdaughter, Lynn Anne Blevins; stepsons, Thomas and David Towalski; brother, Norman Kohler; sister, Dorothy Ball; 15 grandchildren; 20 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson.
Visitation will be from 2-8 p.m. today in the Rupp Funeral Home, Monroe. Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday in Holy Ghost Lutheran Church, Raisinville Township, where the body will be after 10 a.m.
The family suggests tributes to Holy Ghost Lutheran Church Foundation or Holy Ghost Lutheran School.
-- Mark Zaborney
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