John R. Kinnett Jr., is responsible for the most iconic landmark in Columbus and ran a successful family dairy business into its third generation until it was sold to an Italian conglomerate in 1998, but he was not defined by ice cream and milk, his six children said.
Kinnett died after a brief illness early Tuesday morning at Columbus Hospice. He was 90. He was the former chairman of Kinnett Dairies, Inc., which was started in the 1920s by his father, who bought an ice cream business from his uncles and moved it from Macon to Columbus.
“The business was important, but it was not what defined him,” eldest daughter Claire Kinnett Tate said Tuesday afternoon as she sat in her parents living room with her brother and four sisters, most of them drinking milk. “And it was not what he thought was the most important, in my opinion. I believe what was most important to him was his faith, participation in the church and transmitting the faith to his children and grandchildren.
“Second to that was his family, to love and care for his family and teach them to love and care for each other. The third thing was the business. He worked hard, was proud of what he did and he believed in it.”
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A celebration of Kinnett’s life will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, where Kinnett was a lifelong member, taught Sunday school and served in various lay leadership positions. There will be a visitation immediately following the service at the church.
Kinnett made many decisions running the dairy, but one outlasted the company. In the late 1960s, Kinnett was moving the milk operation to a piece of land off Manchester Expressway, next to what is now Peachtree Mall.
“During that time Dad was driving down Victory Drive and saw this flatbed truck with a big cow on it,” said daughter Bright Kinnett Wright. “It was going to Florida. Dad tracked down the manufacturer somewhere in the Midwest.”
It was not long before a similar milk cow grazed in front of the Kinnett plant. The dairy is gone — replaced by an electronics store in a sign of the times — but Kadie the cow still has a place on the top of the hill, as she has had for nearly a half century.
Tommy Adams, a nephew who worked in the family dairy business, remembered a decision Kinnett made in the early 1960s that proved profitable. It came shortly after John Kinnett Sr. had turned the operation of Kinnett Dairies over to his son.
“These two men, Irv Robbins and Butch Baskin, came to see him,” Adams said. “They were franchising this business and wanted him to be the territory franchiser for Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina.”
The business, known as Baskin-Robbins, became highly successful as the store brought dozens of flavors to its customers. Kinnett had the franchise rights for 25 years in the four states.
“That turned out to be a great decision,” Adams said. “But I can remember him and my grandfather talking about the 31 flavors. My grandfather said all you needed was vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and maybe Neapolitan.”
Kinnett was the chairman with five family members, including his son, Bob, working in the business in 1998 when one of the last independent dairies in the Southeast was sold to Parmalat, an Italian company.
“He had put his whole life in the business and it was a gut-wrenching decision,” Adams said. “But he knew it was the right decision.”
Kinnett served in the U.S. Navy as a medic, arriving in Guam near the end of World War II. When the war ended, he returned to Georgia Tech, where he had attended one year before enlisting in the service. A high school athlete at Columbus High and an amateur boxer, Kinnett walked on the football team at Georgia Tech — twice, once before the war and once after.
“He broke his arm the first time and broke his leg the second time,” Bob remembered.
Kinnett graduated from Georgia Tech in 1949 with a degree in industrial management and returned to the family business in Columbus.
Kinnett was married to Betty Blackmon Kinnett for 63 years before her death in 2013. They knew each other at Columbus High but did not start dating until college,
They had six children — Claire Kinnett Tate, Bright Kinnett Wright, Frazer Kinnett Loomis, Jean Kinnett Oliver, John R. (Bob) Kinnett III and Josephine (Jodie) Kinnett Klumpenhower — 13 years apart. The Kinnetts have 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Her parents were a close-knit team that produced a close-knit family, Claire said.
“My old boyfriend used to say that Mom and Dad were like Congress,” Claire said. “That if you wanted to do something you had to get a vote of both houses for it be approved. And that is true.”
John and Betty Kinnett had a long love affair, Bob said.
“Mom and Dad adored each other as much as any couple of I have ever seen — living or fictional,” Bob said. “They lit up when each other entered the room.”
John and Betty Kinnett raised their family in First Presbyterian Church and it was the center of their spiritual life, the children said. Two years ago, First Presbyterian went through an internal struggle that led to a vote to stay or leave The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The vote to stay was close.
“Dad disagreed and participated and tried to make things better — that is how he has always done,” Claire said. “He was in favor of leaving the denomination and other close family members were in favor of staying. He was disappointed when the vote went the way it did.”
Claire remembers calling her father after the vote.
“He said, ‘I guess I will just have to leave my church,” she said.
By the next day, he had a change of heart, Claire said.
“He was on the phone with people who disagreed with him, saying, ‘How do we keep our church?’” she said. “That’s the proudest I have ever been of him.”
Kinnett wrote a letter to the congregation and said he never intended to leave his church, though many did. He was thinking about the church up until his final days, the children said.
Over the weekend all of the children, who are scattered from Colorado to Charlotte, were in Columbus with their dad, who was still at home and hours from being transported to Columbus Hospice.
“He has worked to be there on Sundays,” Claire said. “He started getting very sick on Sunday morning. He called me to the back and he said, ‘I can’t go to church, but I want y’all to go as a witness.”
All of the children attended the First Presbyterian service on Sunday.
Music was important to the Kinnetts. The family would sing hymns in the car on the way to church. The hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” is the one that best defines his father, Bob said.
“The love that we share for one another within the family, to him, was a gift straight from God to us,” Bob said. “A Christian should show that same love to one another. ‘The Tie that Binds’ shows that.”
As he went through his 80s and into his 90s, Kinnett began to lose his close friends. His close friend was Hooper Turner, who died after Betty Kinnett. Kinnett and former W.C. Bradley Co. Chairman Bill Turner, Hooper’s first cousin, were close friends, a friendship cultivated through years of being backyard neighbors and the fact that Bill’s wife, Sue Marie, and Betty Kinnett grew up next door to each other. Two weeks ago, Kinnett attended Turner’s funeral at St. Luke United Methodist Church.
“I was really surprised to see him there,” said Cecil Whitaker, his close friend and neighbor of 45 years. “But he made the effort to be there. That’s how he was.”
Over the weekend, all of the children spent time with their father, singing hymns together as late as Monday morning before he went to Hospice.
Through the years, they had a special song that they would sing to each other as one left and another was staying. They called it the “Going Away Song.”
Sunday, as Jean was preparing to return home to Birmingham, her father began to sing the song.
“Daddy sang every word to me Sunday,” Jean said. “He sat in the chair because he could not go out to the car with me. It goes: ‘We’re sorry you’re going away; we wish that you could stay; we know that we will miss you; we wish we could kiss you; we’re sorry you’re going away.”