Mike Vance was in the process of moving into the neighborhood and wanted to scout out a place to hang out. So on an August night in 1990, he visited The Dutchman with a friend who was more familiar with the area.
By the time he left, Vance had helped to execute a practical joke he and his buddy cooked up with the bar owner.
At the urging of Kenny Ray Kearns, who was tending bar that night, Vance and his friend walked across Wakefield Drive to Red’s Bar, where they ordered two beers and started peppering manager Jackie Roberts with questions. They asked what kind of clientele frequented Red’s, how much those people drank and whether there were many fights at the establishment.
Then they left, without finishing their beers, and headed back to The Dutchman.
“(Roberts) called Kenny Ray and said two undercover vice cops were on their way to their place,” Vance recalled. “Kenny Ray couldn’t hold it together and started laughing. Next thing you know, Jackie walked across the street and punched me in the arm.
“That’s the night I met (Kearns),” Vance added. “And we remained friends ever since.”
Other customers of The Dutchman, which served the Garden Oaks and Oak Forest neighborhoods from the 1940s until 2015 at 834 Wakefield Dr., might have had similar experiences with Kearns. He and his father, JD, owned the bar from 1989 until it closed, endearing himself to generations of area residents with his fun-loving personality and generosity.
Now the neighborhood is mourning the loss of Kenny Ray Kearns, a lifelong area resident and Waltrip High School graduate who died Aug. 11 after a short bout with lung cancer. He was 60.
“Kenny Ray was one of the most fantastic men I’ve ever met,” said his brother-in-law, Kenneth Waites. “He would literally give you the shirt off his back. He would help anybody in need and never ask for anything in return.”
Kearns is survived by his father, six siblings and several nieces and nephews. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a celebration of his life will be scheduled at a later date.
Kearns’ sister, Karen Waites, described him as a quiet soul who “liked to have a good time.” He spent much of the last decade as a caregiver for his elderly father and stepmother, who died last fall.
Karen Waites said her brother liked to watch the History Channel and took up cooking later in life, regularly supplying complimentary food for customers of The Dutchman. Vance said Kearns also possessed “a lot of undocumented Houston history,” having worked for a vending machine business that served the city before running The Dutchman, and had a passion for nature as well.
Kearns was known best to area residents as a friendly fixture at The Dutchman, where Vance said he was a keeper of neighborhood secrets. Kearns earned the nickname “Mayor of Wakefield” for his presence at the popular bar, where patrons could play pool, watch sports, listen to music and let their kids play in the spacious backyard of the property.
“I think that he really, genuinely cared for most of the people that came in there. I won’t say all of them,” Vance said with a laugh. “He was a very beloved figure in the neighborhood.”
Vance said Kearns regularly drove customers home if they had too much to drink. Karen Waites said her brother also helped patrons who had fallen on hard times financially, even paying their electric bills in some cases.
Waites said Kearns once bought a wheelchair for a family that needed one, dropping it off on their front porch and attempting to remain anonymous. The family eventually found out who was responsible and thanked Kearns for his generosity.
“Everyone liked Kenny,” JD Kearns said. “He had no enemies, not a one. He was a great guy and a good son.”
Vance said he misses Kenny Ray Kearns “terribly,” adding that he’s been tempted to call him or send him a text message before realizing he’s not there to answer. But Vance takes some solace in reliving fond memories of his friend, such as the time a piñata was made in Kearns’ image – it was kidnapped from the bar at some point – or the time he and some other friends dressed up as Kearns for Halloween, wearing blue jean shorts and a white T-shirt.
There also was the trick they played on the bar owner across the street.
“He loved practical jokes,” Vance said.