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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

They Come in Clusters

Saturday, November 1, 2008

There's a minor, incidental character in one of Tennessee Williams's early plays who each day pays particular attention to the obituaries in all the New York City newspapers. By scanning the daily death notices, he hopes he'll someday soon discover the name of a person in his neighborhood who's suddenly conked out, in a "rent-controlled" apartment building. That way, he figures he can hurry up and secure a nice place to live, at a bargain-basement rent. He's got no feelings about the deceased ones, he cares only about their inexpensive living places.

I admit I've come to glance over the local obituary notices, because I think, at 68, I've arrived at that age when older close friends have begun to fall by the wayside.

At a 50-year anniversary of my class at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, in May of this year, I was shocked to discover that 16 of my classmates in my class of roughly 110 had already passed on to the happy hunting ground. (Sorry, but my way of coping with sobering personal topics like this is to joke about them. It always worked for Mark Twain.)

Ordinarily, at a glance, I see no one's name I recognize at all. But there are other days, or a cluster of days, when the names of the recently dead not only tap me on the shoulder, but positively hit me between the eyes.

They remind me, in no uncertain terms, of my own mortality. So I guess I should be grateful to the notices.

The first passing of this current cluster was that of Judge Don W. Kennedy, who died on Friday, Oct. 10, at age 82 (or, as my late mother would have said, "at the ripe old age of 82", back when 82 was indeed a "ripe old age." Now, you'd best use the term "ripe old age" only when you're referring to a person between 99 and 107, and even that's not so rare in these days of medical wonders.) A handsome man with a sense of humor radiating from his photograph in the Nevada Daily Mail, Don evidently had some very serious, terribly painful physical afflictions throughout his life. And yet, it seems to say something lightly humorous about his resilient, tough-minded character that he could take his own debilitating experience and "post-polio syndrome," and use them to create a humor-laden children's book, "Oliver the Weak-Tailed Possum," which was, in turn, based on a story he used to tell his own children when they were young. His own son, Roger Quin Kennedy, died of leukemia, in 1973, when he was only 17. The judge's life was not a bed of roses.

I guess I knew Judge Kennedy best by the stories my friend and colleague Tina Norton told me after she had retired from teaching English at Cottey, and moved into a Kansas City apartment just next door to the one Don Kennedy and his wife, Audrey, lived in. Don and Audrey made Tina feel safe and un-alone.

Reading Don Kennedy's obituary reminded me of how I felt when I first read that of Marie Lamore several months ago, and how her long-time colleague and now-retired friend, Dr. Marjorie H. Goss, felt when she first read it out in Oregon. "My gosh," Marjorie said from across the country, over the phone, "I had no idea how much Marie had done in her life." Don Kennedy, too, had done just about everything a socially-conscious citizen might do, from serving on the Missouri Court of Appeals, in 1978, to teaching Sunday School in the First Baptist Church, here in Nevada, and in the Wornall Road Baptist Church, in Kansas City. Sometimes an obituary offers an unsettling suggestion that maybe you didn't know as much about your departed friend as you thought you did.

Then, the notice of Dr. Inez Byer's sudden death reminded me that I never knew Cottey College apart from that marvelous woman.

I met her, way back in 1973, in her top-of-old Main Hall office, with a view to everything in Nevada, like Tennyson's heroine "The Lady of Shallott," one bright weekday morning, the first day I came to town to interview for the teaching position I was thereafter offered -- the same job I kept for 30-something years. After that first morning talk with Inez, I got so wrapped-up in my own teaching and scholarship, sponsorship of Phi Theta Kappa (scholarly honorary), the Retrospect Yearbook, and all-consuming committee work (which in the 1980's included the Cottey College Faculty Federation (CCFF)--the union, of which Inez, who had no gripe with anyone on planet Earth, was not a member), that the only time I met or chatted with her was in the hall, in the ten-minute-long breaks between classes, at the Friday afternoon faculty get-togethers she offered all of us in her beautifully restored Victorian house, or in the Chellie Club between classes. (I've always suspected Cottey's administrators shut down the Chellie Club during lunch-hour partly because they foresaw faculty members sitting over hamburgers -- admittedly the best in Vernon County -- hatching plots against the college president, and planning for the new union.) Inez's death, on Oct.13, hit me hard: it reminded me I'd for some thirty-plus years taken her for granted. As long as she had her office in the same building, and gathered at the same faculty meetings, I could be assured there was an unwavering voice of reason, a human manifestation of uncluttered love, among the warring and distraught members of our faculty. I'll miss her for as long as I breathe.

And now, on Friday, Oct. 24, I read of the death of Marye Adams. I don't know her exact title, but she appeared to have been a kind of Raney Hall Chief Supervisor of the Dining Room. I chatted with her every time Ginny and I went to Raney for a meal. Even when my wife grumbled at the prospect of sitting through a long, speech-clogged, drawn-out luncheon in honor of initiates-to-be of Epsilon chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, when she knew she'd rather work on one of our two nearby farms, I could usually bring her around to my way of thinking if Marye Adams, among others, was there. Because Mary had lived her early life (born 1918, graduated from Cottey in 1928) in Nevada, and could answer nearly any question you might have about the town -- or College. She was a lovely, sweet-spirited lady, who ended up having spent 28 years working at the College from which she was graduated. The photograph beneath her name in the Oct. 25 Nevada Daily Mail obituary section says it all -- a pleasant, sweet-tempered, 90-year-old, with a broad smile across her face.

Or does it?

When I read the brief accompanying story of her life, I read that she "studied music at Juilliard and Columbia University in New York City. Marye taught school in Westphalia, Kansas, and . . ." My Golly, Miss Molly!!

Juilliard is the best college for music in the country; it is now, and always has been, a college with impressively high standards of admission. You don't just walk in the front door, take a seat, scribble through a final exam, and get your final grade of A, as is the case with so many of today's colleges, forced by financial exigencies to tolerate the spreading "grade inflation" that runs rampant in American colleges. And Columbia's admission standards are much the same -- always were. That, followed by a stint of teaching (what subject?) in Westphalia, Kansas, made me realize that the plain-speaking woman I'd known for many years, I hadn't really known at all.

Her long life was chock-full of experiences and accomplishments of which I hadn't a clue. And that's reason enough for great rejoicing, isn't it? But isn't it also true that there's great sadness that hovers over all our friends and relatives, whom we come to know and love, enjoying all the time we've spent with them -- be it two days or seven decades. But, "at the end of the day" (to coin a phrase), a good friend dies, and we suddenly, and sadly, find we've known only a small fraction of the pieces of our friend's whole life, and that there probably will always be gaping holes in that jigsaw puzzle picture we've so carefully -- and futilely -- pieced together.

And so I felt at the death of each of these three Nevada friends. I'm just thankful to have had the good fortune to know each of them for as long as I did.