Jewish World Review July 13, 2001 / 22 Tamuz, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- KEN SMITH died July 3 at the age of 44, having achieved an astonishing and rare distinction: He never lost a friend. Even though he earned his keep in the grim and contentious world of punditry, Ken developed a knack honed through dozens of controversies and thousands of heat-seeking editorials for expressing his opinions without venting his spleen.
Genetics accounts for part of his gift. Ken was the son of a Virginia gentlewoman and a brawling, conservative scholar. Together, they lavished on their son a chaos of vivid and seemingly incommensurable traits that filled him with good humor, an aggressive sense of wonder and unshakable convictions about how to behave.
Ken was a ferocious gentleman, a civil brawler, a Midwestern Southerner and a Southern Midwesterner. He loved college basketball, professional football, fine bourbon and imported beer. He was a neatnik and a jock. He loved to dance the shag and listen to opera. He could recite Shakespeare and baseball statistics with equal gusto and facility. He whiled away evenings in chinos watching sports, in a tuxedo smoking fine cigars with Washington eminentos, or in shorts playing basketball. Sometimes, he just retreated to his basement study which he built himself polishing prose that exposed the imbecility of sado-environmentalism or testified to the joys of simple religious faith.
Ken lived to write. He churned out editorials for The Washington Times, produced columns for the Wall Street Journal and crafted exposes for Reader's Digest. He cherished having his own column and planned to compose a final homily titled, "Just one more thing."
That headline captures the essence of opinion-writing the endless yearning to shoehorn in one last mot, fact or insight. But Ken never got around to writing his valedictory, probably because he had chosen a topic the meaning and preciousness of life that not even his pen could tame.
He reveled in the newspaper business the bustle, the tumult, the deadlines and headlines. Nevertheless, Ken was not an unguided missile, eager merely to vaporize politicians or detonate clever one-liners. If anything, he wrote with maddening deliberation. He agonized over every word, phrase and construction. He weighed verbal combinations endlessly, like an engineer trying to decide whether to construct an edifice of marble or granite.
He also loathed dishonesty in any form. He refused to draw conclusions before getting all the facts and he sometimes would spend days prospecting for the missing datum that would enable him to make sense of a complex or important subject.
Once, when I was his editor at The Washington Times, he and I were talking about the Kafkaesque nature of wetlands regulations. In a fit of inspiration, I challenged him to find a wetland (as defined by federal rules) that had a cactus on it. Weeks later, long after I had forgotten the conversation, he rushed into my office, shouting, "I found it! I found it!" "Found what?" "The cactus! The wetland cactus!" He had a picture. He had checked and double-checked to ensure the photo was legit. And soon after, we ran an editorial, picture and all, about the desert that was also a wetland.
Ken's work held up over the years because it rested on a foundation of stern and sturdy principle. He was a proud high-church Anglican whose faith grew stronger with each passing year and each new tribulation. He was an equally tenacious conservative, who believed in the primacy of individual liberty and the indispensability of human dignity. He didn't like producing abstract tracts about issues of the day. He preferred helping actual people such as Ocie Mills, a Floridian victimized by irrational regulations. Ken used punditry not as an excuse to amuse himself, but to help others.
He also had a knack for hanging out with how shall I put this kindly? wild men. His pals included professionals and lumpen proles united primarily by their thirst for adventure. One buddy hauled him to India and Southeast Asia last year for a tour that took him not only to holy sites, but to the edges of refugee camps that housed victims of religious repression. He had plans this year to take Paris by storm with a couple of friends.
Ken surrounded himself with interesting people, and he often served as a designated adult during road trips to a variety of destinations the beach, the mountains, big cities, isolated burgs, domestic and foreign ports of call. He often shared drinks with his comrades, but avoided excess (well, other than that incident on his 30th birthday). As a result, he got stuck with job of caretaker ready to drive guys home after a boisterous revel, and even tuck them into bed. But he also had a wickedly virtuous habit of following Saturday-evening bacchanals with early Sunday trips to the local church, where he would drag his buddies for a little moral renewal.
He managed to combine fellowship and faith by joining a "bar ministry" that celebrated two kinds of spirits: Holy and distilled. He would join men and women from his church at homes and watering holes, hoisting glasses, smoking stinky cigars and discussing everything from the new math to the New Testament.
But here's another place where his genes made things interesting. For all Ken's intensity, he was a gentle soul. He was in charge of Sunday school at his church, and he treated his two nieces with indescribable tenderness and affection. When he was trying to figure out appropriate gifts to leave them, he settled on something most little girls like charms for their bracelets in this case, guardian angels representing Uncle Ken.
In a fashion befitting Shakespeare, nothing so became Ken's life as the leaving of it. He spent his final months in blinding pain, careening between moments of faint hope and debilitating disappointment. One clinic would offer a chipper diagnosis; the next would disagree. While physicians bickered and dithered, cancer raced through his system. He once confided that there were times when he gladly would have died to escape his misery. But he didn't quit. He hung on until his body, worn literally to skin and bone, simply gave out.
Yet, many of his friends had no idea. He hated fussing over himself, and didn't want to burden anybody with the news that he was suffering through a particularly cruel and agonizing form of liver cancer. So he kept quiet. If pressed, he might admit feeling some discomfort he couldn't hide that but he told very few that the illness had deprived him of the ability to eat or sleep. Indeed, when overcome by agony, he would do little more than hunch over, knead his temples and take a few long, shallow breaths. No more: No groans; no complaints.
He accepted calmly the news that his cancer was incurable. He skipped the first four stages of dying, and went straight to Stage Five: acceptance. This leads to the toughest and tritest question raised by his death. We naturally find it difficult to reconcile a loved one's pain with the idea that a kind and loving God governs our affairs. It seems bizarre that a man as kind as Ken would suffer and die. Yet, Ken didn't view his fate as cruel or arbitrary. He wasn't happy about what was happening to him, but neither was he ready to curse the heavens.
Suffering often does grotesque things to people: It transforms them physically and spiritually; twisting the body and desiccating the soul. But Ken never became bitter or morose. He didn't milk his plight to elicit pity. He remained himself. He treated all his visitors as guests. He'd offer a drink or a morsel of food and do his best to keep conversations lively and comfortable. His kindness melted away awkward silences, and made it possible to discuss the great unmentionables life and death, love and absence. We got to tell Ken we loved him, and by "we," I mean a train of visitors astonishing for its size and diversity. He welcomed Democrats and Republicans, youngsters and senior citizens. Letters and e-mails flooded in from around the globe; from friends in town and high-school buddies who vanished decades ago, only to reappear in time to express their love for Ken.
He handed out a few memories in return. Five days before he died, he insisted on getting a ride to a car dealership, where he picked up a Lexus SUV. He loved the combination of luxury and political incorrectness, and decided on the purchase because he had saved for years and wasn't about to give in merely on account of terminal illness. Besides, he knew others would make good use of it after he passed on. So he got to the lot and got not just the right price, but the precise color scheme he wanted. One of his brothers even strong-armed the salesman into throwing a baseball cap into the bargain. Ken donned it and posed for pictures. While it may not have been his best look he never was a hat guy it was worth capturing for posterity.
Afterward, he sat at the edge of his bed and talked, asking at one point for a glass of bourbon. The booze was a little fiery, so he simply dipped his fingers in the drink, and enjoyed his final libations that way. These vignettes show Ken at his best: meek and fearless a man who never tolerated injustice, never succumbed to Laodicean ambivalence, and never, ever condoned bad manners. He was bull-headed and energetic; self-sacrificing and self-reliant.
Now, keep in mind, he wasn't a saint: He was a guy. His younger brothers worshiped him, but also recalled that he was the same fellow who, when they were just boys, would pin their shoulders to the floor with his knees and administer a little brotherly instruction in the finer points of who was boss.
He had other quirks. He drove like a NASCAR driver headed toward the finish line. He wore madras suits long after everyone else forgot such things existed. He had a genius for picking women friends, but not for finding romantic interests. And he was known to throw his heart behind lost causes such as the 2001 edition of the Cincinnati Reds.
But when it mattered, his virtues always dominated his vices. The afternoon before he died, he interrupted the reading of an e-mail to inquire whether the reader had been properly introduced to the note's author. When informed that he himself had made the introduction years before, he swiveled his head slowly and unveiled a smile that rose slowly and lingered brightly, like a morning sun.
The simple act of asking after another may have been his final spoken words coming on the heels of a protest of tax policy. (He had confessed moments before that he was giving all his retirement account savings to charity because he wanted to be sure "that Uncle Sam will get only one bite at the apple.")
I met Ken 14 years ago, and hired him a year later as a writer for The Times. We shared views and avocations. We both grew up in Cincinnati, and have remained stubbornly partial to the Reds. We had been through tragedies and triumphs, births and deaths. And in the end, he became my teacher and mentor.
Just days after receiving word that he had little chance of survival, he said, "I'm going to fight this thing as hard as I can, and I may be able to survive a few more months. But if I don't win, I'll just see you on the other side."
He used the light of his faith to dispel shadows of death. He kept a Bible at his bedside, along with a worn copy of "The Book of Common Prayer" (the 1928 edition, of course) given by his mother. The books weren't props. They were travel guides. He knew his next destination, and although he maintained a lively interest in worldly matters, he kept his bags packed for the adventure that awaited.
As his death drew near, he became the caretaker for those gathered around. He acquired a dying man's sense of perspective and calm, and shared the wisdom he was collecting. He talked openly about life and death his conversation quickened by curiosity about his future and solicitude for those grieving at his side.
On his final night, he sat with his family. Everybody talked but Ken. He was too weak by then to speak, but he communicated with waves and smiles and squeezes of the hand. He even spilled a few tears, despite severe dehydration. Then, having taken care of that business, he slipped to sleep and walked through the veil of light beyond.
If there is redemption in pain, Ken was long ago redeemed. If there is glory in the love one inspires, Ken has achieved glory worthy of a king. I find myself in the odd position of mourning less than I ought to because I feel so grateful that I got to know him at all. The world doesn't produce as many nice guys as it should. Ditto for people who possess exemplary courage, strength, decency and faith. Ken got 44 years to show the rest of us how to brighten a life and a world.
And when the day comes that the rest of us make our way
to "the other side," Ken will be waiting smiling, ready to give
a tour and make an introduction or two. And that reunion
happy, hospitable and warm, will make the place seem just