From his tireless smile throughout his 70th birthday celebration, you would never know Long Beach native Kenny Kimmelman has a progressive, debilitating disease.
As each of his family members and longtime friends arrived at his Lido Beach home to celebrate on Saturday evening, he would light up -- his smile stretching wide across his face as they greeted him.
Seven years ago, Kimmelman was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease that in the years since his diagnosis has left him unable to speak or walk. His smile, however, is untouched by the incurable disease that steadily weakens the body’s muscles.
“No matter what he does that smile does not leave his face,” said friend, Iris Pollack, 64, who has known him for more than 30 years.
His high spirits can be attributed to his large support system, said his wife of nearly 37 years, Beryl. Since his 2006 diagnosis, friends and family have rallied around the couple and their two sons, Brett, 34, and Evan, 31, Beryl Kimmelman said.
A Vietnam veteran, Kenny Kimmelman started showing signs of the disease in 2004 while running the Bronx wholesale meat business he owned. He began slurring his words and falling often, but despite several doctors’ visits, he was not diagnosed for two years, his wife said.
ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, results in the loss of muscle control. When Kimmelman became confined to a wheelchair shortly after his diagnosis, Beryl Kimmelman said friends and family raised around $25,000 to make their two-story Colonial home handicap accessible.
Peter Oppenheimer, 59, who has known the Kimmelmans through their sons for nearly 30 years, was part of the group, known as the club, that came together to raise funds to have an elevator and handicap bathroom installed in the Kimmelman home.
“It only took a couple of hours for us to raise the money,” he said. “Kenny has been a part of the community all of his life and is a great guy. People donated the money, no questions asked.”
Also in the club is a group of Kimmelman’s friends from elementary school who remember enjoying egg creams in the afternoon at Kimmelman’s parents’ deli, Harry and Max’s, on Lindell Boulevard in Long Beach.
Many of those friends were among the 80 guests who attended Kimmelman’s birthday celebration Saturday night. In lieu of gifts, the couple asked that guests donate to the ALS Organization of Greater New York.
During the celebration, Kimmelman sat in his wheelchair in the living room, communicating with friends and family using a notepad. Although Kimmelman has lost his ability to speak, he still is able to control his hand movement and often uses computer technology to communicate.
He is especially fond of his iPad and also makes use of technology to send his friends YouTube videos and enjoy his favorite pastime, shopping.
“The advance of technology has been great for him,” said his wife’s cousin, Bonnie Sulter, of Woodmere. “He likes to shop on the computer, and every day there are packages at the door. He has always liked to look nice and still does.”
Beryl Kimmelman said she constantly teases her husband about his shopping habits, among other things. The couple has always been able to laugh together, ever since a cousin of hers who had been deployed in Vietnam with Kimmelman first introduced them, she said.
“I have a sense of humor about everything and so does he,” said Beryl Kimmelman, 64. “When he gets upset and I don't understand what he is saying, I kid and say ‘Did you just tell me that you love me?' ”
Their sense of humor helped the couple stay positive throughout the experience, she said. Despite initially being told by doctors that he had two to five years to live upon receiving the diagnosis, Kimmelman has outlived the prognosis, Beryl Kimmelman said.
“For the last couple of years, his health has been on an even keel and we are very happy about it,” she said of her husband. “He is an incredibly strong person.”
She says she woke up early the morning after the party with a smile on her face, elated from its success and how much her husband appreciated it.
“Kenny loved the party,” she said. “He enjoyed having people around him and the whole aura of the party.”