Friends and colleagues of Wendel Kiser said he was one of the most outgoing, personable Lodians they had ever known.
A man who almost always had a smile on his face, the former planning commissioner loved Lodi, and it showed whether he was considering what developments were a proper fit for the community or building Craftsman-style homes in town.
Kiser passed away from complications due to COVID-19 on July 26. He was 66.
“Wendel was the last person I would have thought would die from this,” former Lodi City Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock said. “He was such a big, strong guy — he had a firm handshake. He was just a wonderful man. This is a sad loss.”
Hitchcock knew Kiser for about 20 years, she said. They met when she and her husband Jerry Glenn began remodeling their Lodi home. She joked that Kiser had built a home much like the Winchester Mystery House, as she and her husband continued to add things to their plans as time went on.
“He was so creative, and had such wonderful ideas,” she said. “He was just an amazing craftsman. You could totally trust him to do things right. He took a lot of pride in his work.”
Over the years, the couple and Kiser became close friends, and Hitchcock said they would often eat out at local establishments such as Pietro’s or School Street Bistro.
Kiser was well-respected as a planning commissioner because of his construction industry background and his ability to understand the challenges that accompany development, be it commercial or residential, she said.
Kiser also served on the Site Plan and Architectural Review Board, a commission that typically had rotating members from the Planning Commission. Because Kiser was so knowledgeable, his fellow commissioners urged him to be their permanent representative on SPARC, Hitchcock said.
“I used to tease him a lot about coming down to Southern California, where we live now, so he can do my cabinets,” she said. “He’d always say, ‘When I retire.’ And he didn’t get to retire.”
Dave Kirsten served on the Planning Commission with Kiser, and remembered how carefully he would formulate a thought or sentence before he spoke about proposed projects.
“He was very methodical about his thought process,” Kirsten said. “He wanted to make sure he wasn’t misunderstood or misinterpreted. He was always really cautious about offending anyone. He was just a good soul.”
Even when the two weren’t at commission meetings, they would always run into each other around town, Kirsten said.
“We seemed to always show up at the post office at the same time,” he said. “And what should have been a three-minute chat would sometimes turn into a 20-minute conversation. I’ll always hold him in the highest regard.”
According to an obituary from the Lodi Funeral Home, Kiser was born in Lodi on June 19, 1954 to Wendel Joseph and Milga Kiser. His family, which included brothers Paul and Joseph and sisters Rosemarie and Alice, operated a family dairy on Jahant Road.
Kiser attended Oak View Elementary School, and graduated from Galt High School in 1972. While he had a keen memory and enjoyed history, he liked shop classes the most. His shop teacher arranged for him to attend a carpentry apprenticeship program in Sacramento, and he eventually obtained a cabinet apprenticeship position with Union Planning Mill in Stockton.
In 1975, he married Heidi Burri of Ripon, whom he met at Swiss Club events he frequently attended. The couple had a daughter, Andrea, in 1980, and a son, Hans, in 1982.
That same year, he attained a contractor’s license in cabinet millwork and finished carpentry, and he left Union Planning Mill and became a maintenance department supervisor for Stockton Unified School District.
He would eventually leave Stockton Unified and go to work for his cousins Louie and Walt Schallberger at L&W Cabinets.
By the mid-1990s, he was self-employed and started Kiser Construction. It was Hitchcock who encouraged him to apply for the Lodi Planning Commission, where he served two terms.
“He was a very intelligent man,” former commissioner Randy Heinitz said. “He was a straight talker, wasn’t very eloquent, and he looked like a construction guy. He always had the boots and jeans on, even at the meetings.”
He added his friend and colleague was not only committed to the Planning Commission, but to the city of Lodi as well. He even made a bid for Lodi City Council in 2014, narrowly missing election to Doug Kuehne.
“If he saw you across the parking lot, he’d walk across it just to shake your hand,” Heinitz said. “He was just a real good guy. It really is sad he passed like this.”
Jim Murdaca, owner of Pietro’s, said Kiser built the meat locker in the front of the restaurant during the establishment’s remodel, and helped with the final inspection of the building before they reopened.
Whenever Wendel wasn’t working, he was eating, Murdaca said with a laugh, and he frequented Pietro’s and Richmaid.
“He was just a fine gentleman, and a man of his word,” Murdaca said. “He was probably one of the last craftsmen in the state to build anything in that style.”
Over the years, Kiser Construction supported Lodi’s youth baseball, softball and soccer teams, and Kiser himself coordinated and paid for the activities to have the outdoor statue set in place in the plaza between St. Anne’s Catholic Church and St. Anne’s School.
A lifetime member of St. Anne’s, he also served as an usher there. He was also a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge 259, where he was elected a Noble Grand in 2019.
Kiser spent a month in the intensive care unit at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial before COVID-19 took his life, according to his obituary.
He is survived by his daughter Andrea; son Hans (Lexi); grandchildren Owen, Hayden and Ethen; brother Paul (Alice); sisters Rosemarie (Dieter) and Alice (Camile); brother Joe (Susan); and several cousins, nieces and nephews.