For 32 years, Kathleen Marie Kienlen worked five days a week at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. She was known as the Shredder in Chief.

While still able to walk, she got up at 4 a.m. and took SEPTA from Bryn Mawr to the Navy complex in South Philly. When her legs failed, she took Paratransit to work and used a pink motorized scooter to get around.

Ms. Kienlen was a familiar, beloved presence. She’d do some shredding and go see a friend in her building. “You never knew when you were going to run into Kathleen,” said Bob Osgood, her colleague. “But you could always hear her. She had such a laugh.”

Ms. Kienlen, 50, of Bryn Mawr, a longtime civilian employee at the Navy Yard, poet, and friend to many, died Thursday, Jan. 9, at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Though her immediate cause of death was cancer, she had Down syndrome and hereditary spastic paraplegia, a disorder that causes progressive weakness and stiffness in the legs.

Despite those challenges, Ms. Kienlen never complained. Her focus was on getting her job done. “I’m literally heartbroken. It’s so sad,” said her colleague and friend Tracy Walsh.

She didn’t care that she had Down syndrome. She was frustrated with spastic paraplegia because it slowed her down. If she dropped something, she would sputter with anger, then figure out how to pick it up. “She got done what she needed to do and carried on,” Osgood said. “That’s what made her human to us.”

As she carried out her filing and shredding chores, and delivered the mail, Ms. Kienlen was conscientious. “She wanted to be useful, and employed, and do the right thing,” said Osgood. “She wasn’t able to understand engineering and finance, but she made sure she contributed.”

When Ms. Kienlen retired in July 2018 for health reasons, her colleagues sent her off in style with a luncheon for 100 people. “We had a phenomenal turnout,” said Walsh. “Everyone was happy for her.”

Hours before she died, several of her friends from work were at her bedside. “We were able to sit with her, and hold her hand,” Walsh said. “We got to tell her that we loved her.”

Born in Ambler, she was the daughter of John Norman Kienlen and Joan Calhoun Kienlen.

She was a graduate of St. Katherine Day School in Wynnewood, where she first learned to read and enjoy poetry. She also wrote poems, such as the one below:


Time is short, we need to cherish the moments

together before we die

We need to reach out for a hand to hold on to life

To always have a friend who can help us to move

upwards and forward

We need to stand together as one to cherish the

moments together as friends

That is really the meaning of time together

as friends …

Kathleen Kienlen, 2007

She dedicated her life to making new friends. “Everyone she met was better for having known her,” said her brother-in-law, James Eberwine.

Ms. Kienlen collected people’s names that she liked, music on her iPod, and poetry books. She also enjoyed coloring and watching soap operas on TV.

“While she enjoyed playing find-the-word puzzles, life was never a puzzle for her,” Eberwine said. “She simply liked everyone.”

She is survived by her mother, Joan Calhoun Kienlen; brothers Alex, John N. Jr., Joseph, and Christopher; sisters Ann Marie Lakin and Joan-Marie Eberwine; and nieces and nephews. Her father and a sister, Helen Marie Kienlen, died earlier.

A visitation beginning at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, will be followed by a 10:30 a.m. Funeral Mass at St. Margaret Church, 208 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth. Burial is private.

Memorial donations may be made to the Spastic Paraplegia Foundation, 1605 Goularte Place, Fremont, Calif. 94539.