A match made in Port Washington

After her husband died in a military training exercise, Jenna Kemp found love again thanks to uncanny connections between her and her fiance’s families

CELEBRATING THEIR engagement as well as the holidays with family in Port Washington were Jenna Kemp and Bryce Klarner. The group included (front row, from left) Bryce’s grandmother Marge Bichler, Jenna’s children Makenzie and Wesley Kemp, Jenna’s grandmother Carol Peiffer, (back row) Bryce’s mother Susan Klarner, his grandfather Rick Bichler, Bryce and Jenna, and Jenna’s parents Bill and Vicki Fowler. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

If their grandmothers hadn’t been friends since the third grade ...

If her mother and his aunt hadn’t been best friends for decades ...

If his cousin wasn’t her best friend ...

Would Jenna  Kemp and Bryce Klarner have met, fallen in love and gotten engaged?

Theirs is a story steeped in Port Washington connections, even though the couple live in North Carolina.

“All our family ties are back here in Port Washington,” said Bryce, an Army engineer sergeant who grew up in San Diego. “Every summer and winter, we’d vacation here.”

The former Jenna Fowler grew up in Port Washington and graduated from Port High, but lived in Jacksonville, N.C., with her children Makenzie, 4, and Wesley, 3.

The couple met on Memorial Day 2017, when Bryce attended a party at the Port Washington home of his grandparents, Marge and Rick Bichler.

Jenna was in Port, too, since the headstone for her late husband Kerry was being placed that weekend.

Kerry, a decorated Marine staff sergeant, died in a helicopter crash off the Florida coast during a training exercise in 2015.

Bryce’s cousin Jenny Pierron, Jenna’s best friend since childhood, invited her to the party at the Bichlers. There, the two met.

“He was really nice. He was really good looking,” Jenna recalled. “And with all our family ties, we just hit it off.”

They had come close to meeting before, said Bryce, recalling the fact Jenna stayed with his mother Susan in San Diego when Kerry was stationed in the area. He was at his father’s at the time.

“We didn’t meet until the timing was right,” Bryce said. “If I had met her and her husband, I would have seen her differently.”

The couple returned to North Carolina, where they lived about 90 minutes apart. The next weekend Bryce invited Jenna and her children to join him and his friends at a nearby beach. The following weekend, they met up at Country Fest in Myrtle Beach.

“After that, we hung out every weekend,” Jenna said. 

Cheering from the sidelines were their families, who had been rooting for the couple even before they met.

“I think the match-making was in place, especially with the grandmas,” Bryce said.

His grandmother Marge said she was thrilled to see the couple together.

“I was watching,” she admitted. “I wanted to see this happen.”

And when she saw a picture of the couple with Bryce’s friends at the beach a week after they met, she said, “I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy.”

“I said, ‘I guess they’re dating.’” 

So tight are these family ties that when Bryce brought Jenna flowers while on a date one night — and she texted her mother about it — Bryce got a text from his mother before the end of the date saying, “You didn’t tell me you got her flowers.’”

“Word gets around fast,” Bryce said, noting the word had traveled between numerous family members by that time.

Their relationship “was just really natural,” Jenna said. “Over time, seeing how he treated me and especially how he treated the kids,  I knew it was right.”

Bryce has been exceptional with the children since the beginning, Jenna said, recalling that first date on the beach when Makenzie “made a mess in his truck, and he’s very particular about his truck.”

“Kenzie made a sand castle in the back seat,” Bryce said.

The children are attached to Bryce, Jenna said, adding, “He does everything with them. It seems really effortless for him.”

Bryce has not only accepted and been understanding of everything she’s been through, she said, he also works to keep Kerry’s memory alive.

“It takes a very special person to do that,” she said. “He’s incredible.”

Kerry’s family has been “very happy and very supportive” of the couple, Jenna said. 

“We include his family in things as much as mine,” Bryce said.

“We’ve already lost enough — the more the merrier,” Jenna said of the families. “There’s always going to be a void, so we try to include Kerry as much as we can.”

Bryce proposed to Jenna on Aug. 18, the same day they put an offer in on a house in Pinehurst, N.C., near Fort Bragg, where Bryce is stationed, and where the legal firm that Jenna works for as a paralegal is building an office.

Their offer on the house was accepted, as was Bryce’s proposal.

Jenna acknowledged it’s a little scary to fall in love with a soldier, especially given what happened with Kerry.

“The thought of what can happen is always in the back of my mind,” she said. “But I believe when it’s your time, it’s your time whether you want it to be or not.

“Having gone through the worst that can happen, I just accept him.”

For now, the couple are settling into their new home and enjoying life. They plan to marry later this year, although they are waiting to find out Bryce’s deployment schedule to set a date.

One thing they do know is the wedding will be at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Port Washington — the same church they and many of their family members, including the children, were baptized in.

“It’s a special place for us,” Bryce said, “and our families are here.”

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