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Obituaries » Janis Kukainis

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June 12, 1943 - September 15, 2021

A service to commemorate Janis’s life will be held on Friday, October 15, 2021 at 12:00 p.m. at Centerpoint Church, 2345 N. 10th St., Kalamazoo.  A livestream of the service will be at:  A memorial meal will follow the service.  Memorial contributions in lieu of flowers may be directed to either the Latvian Ev. Lutheran United Church of Kalamazoo or the Kalamazoo Latvian Association.  Both at 122 Cherry Hill Drive, Kalamazoo, MI, 49006.

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Janis was born in Riga, Latvia on 12 June 1943.  Latvia was under occupation by the Nazis, and the Russian communists would soon return and occupy Latvia until 1991.  He fled Latvia from the invading Russian army with an aunt in October 1944, and was fortunate to reunite with his mother and father in a displaced persons camp in Germany.  His mother reminded him never to forget the evil that was done to the people of Latvia by the invading armies. 

After 6 years in the refugee camps in Germany, his family immigrated to the US through Ellis Island to Gettysburg, Ohio in June 1951 and later settled in Cincinnati in June 1952. The first years in the US were hard for his family, as for many immigrants, but these hardships would forge Janis into the person he would become.  He was raised to be an honorable man and a good citizen. He was a proud Eagle Scout, graduated from Western Hills High School in 1961, and earned a BS Aeronautical Engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati.  When President Kennedy announced the United States was going to the moon, Janis said he was going, too.  That led to his Master of Science from the University of Tennessee Space Institute.  He later earned an MBA from Michigan State University.  He worked as an engineer in Tennessee, and then for 27 years at Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, MI, first as an engineer, then as an executive.  He led teams designing prototype automobiles and led the launch team of a production automobile design and initial automobile launch.  He was the author/co-author of 20 academic papers on warplane aerodynamics and holds two patents on automobile structure.

Janis was a Latvian patriot and was always extremely grateful for the freedom and security America provided.  He lived and preached a can-do attitude and valued action over talk.  He was elected to roles of increasing responsibility in the Latvian community starting in 1973.  He was a Sunday school teacher at the Detroit Latvian School.  He led his Latvian academic fraternity “Talavija” for many years in Michigan and globally.  He served as the President and Chairman of the Latvian Center ”Garezers” in Three Rivers, MI.  He led the American Latvian Association and then the World Federation of Free Latvians, both volunteer positions.  Distrustful from experience of Latvia’s eastern neighbor, Russia, in this last role he led the global campaign to guarantee the security of the newly-independent Latvia by gaining its admission to the NATO Alliance, working with U.S. Senators, Representatives, and the highest levels of Latvian government.  In the words of the current President of Latvia, the honorable Egils Levits, “his skillful work in the management of Latvian public organizations for many decades, contributed to ensuring the security and democracy of the restored Latvia, which culminated in the country’s accession to NATO.”

Janis’ pride was to see others benefit from his mentorship, as he credited his own mentors throughout his life for his success.  Above all, family was most important to Janis .  Janis married Aija Kengis in Kalamazoo in 1971.  Aija, who survives Janis, was born on her family’s farm near Valmiera, Latvia and together they formed a powerful team.  They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on 26 June 2021 with 175 family and friends.  Their marriage was blessed with three children, in whom the couple labored to instill good values.  Ginta (Ryan) McNally of Ada, MI; Roberts (Liene) Kukainis of Greenville, SC; and Matiss (Liga) Kukainis of Riga, Latvia.   They have nine grandchildren; Ronald, Matiss and Inara McNally; Lauris, Mikus, Vilis and Zintis Kukainis; and Minna and Janis Kukainis.  Janis took pride that all of his grandchildren learned the Latvian language and would only accept that they grow up to be good citizens.  Surviving Janis is also his sister Velta (Dr.Guntis) Kalninš of Springfield, OH.  Janis had three godchildren; Dr. Peter Matthews of Chandler, AZ, Asja Kalninš of Springfield, IL and Janis A. Kukainis of Cincinnati, OH. 

Janis passed away from complications stemming from a heroic two year battle with cancer in Kalamazoo on 15 September 2021, with family by his bedside during his final moments.  Preceding him in death were his parents, Roberts and Irene (Peterjanis) Kukainis and brother Valdis (Mary) Kukainis.