James Walter Kelly, a Penngrove native who parlayed his construction experience during the Vietnam War into a career as a general contractor, died Aug. 27, after a long battle with respiratory disease. He was 68.

Growing up working on his grandparents' Penngrove chicken ranch, Kelly got to be pretty handy at a young age. After high school, he put those skills to use when he joined the SeaBees, the construction division of the U.S. Navy. He served in Vietnam building roads and bases for U.S. forces.

"He used to say he was in the Navy and he never once was on a ship," said Glenda Swenston, his partner of the past 13 years.

After his discharge in 1974, Kelly became a general contractor in Petaluma, building homes and a variety of other projects.

He had two children, Jennifer and Nick, with his former wife, Carla, all of whom still live in the Petaluma area.

Kelly was playing video poker at the Sho-Ka-Wah Casino in Hopland in 2000 when he began chatting with a woman at the machine next to him. They had their first date at Negri's restaurant in Occidental, and were together from then on.

"I always felt it was love at first sight," Swenston said.

She described him as a kind, honest and personable man who was well known in the community.

"He had a lot of acquaintances and friends," Swenston said. "There was hardly any place we went to where people didn't recognize him."

The couple moved to Windsor to be closer to her parents. Not long after that, he started to slow down. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in 2005. He also suffered from emphysema.

He had been on oxygen for the past two years, but took his disease in stride, never once feeling sorry for himself, Swenston said.

"He was very easy-going about the whole thing," she said.

His parents, Bill, the former Penngrove postmaster, and Charlotte; and his sister, Linda Black, died earlier.

Donations can be made in Kelly's name to Sutter Care at Home Hospice 110 Stony Point Road, Suite 200C Santa Rosa 95401.

Services will be private.

-- Kevin McCallum

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