Paying respect to a lost friend

Richard Groves: Paying respect to a lost friend



“Schizophrenia is a hell of a price to pay for enlightenment.”

— Kenneth Wood

How irrelevant do you have to be to die on a downtown street during drive time and your death not be mentioned in the newspaper?

Kenneth Wood died Thursday morning, April 12, at the corner of Brookstown Avenue and Fourth Street, across the street from three of our fine restaurants. From roughly 8 a.m. to approximately 9:30 a.m. his body lay there, hidden from public view by an orange tarp and guarded by two police cruisers, lights flashing.

There was no mention of his death in the Journal the next day. The page one, above-the-fold headline that day: “Puppy found in dumpster progressing well.”

Nothing the day after that.

Unnoticed in life, unnoted in death.

The following day, Sunday, the Journal carried his obituary, which had been written by his father. Graduated with honors from Mount Tabor High School, his dad wrote. And N.C. State with a major in writing and editing and a minor in Spanish. A computer whiz, poet, songwriter and guitarist. “He was a funny, smart and caring soul when he was at his best.”

Kenneth, who spent his childhood and youth in Wake Forest Baptist Church where I was pastor, was not always at his best. In his early 20s his keen mind was, in his father’s words, “mangled by schizophrenia.”

Over the next two decades he became alienated from old friends and members of his family, pulling further and further into his own mind, which increasingly interpreted reality in distorted ways. “Am I crazy?” he once wrote. “Yes, I am crazy, enough not to mesh with other people unnecessarily.”

Well into his illness, Kenneth went with his dad to see “A Beautiful Mind,” the 2001 film about John Nash, a Nobel Laureate who was tormented by schizophrenia for most of his adult life. When asked his opinion of the film, Kenneth said, “It is not a beautiful mind. It is a brilliant mind. But it is not a beautiful mind.”

A couple of years ago, Kenneth left a folder of his writings in the Little Free Library that I set up at the end of our block. It contains dark fantasies, to be sure, as well as farfetched conspiracy theories and confused thinking. But Kenneth also quotes Shakespeare, reflects an understanding of the work of physicist Niels Bohr, constructs cogent arguments for creationism and against evolution, and explains that the reason “most (people) are okay with the government playing mental games is due to the great prosperity in America.” “People are practically coin-operated,” he said.

There are places where his once brilliant mind shines through. “We should be worthwhile and independent for the most part, with limited interdependence … pleasant manners … inclined to atone, transcendently hearty, extending morality, judging square and level.”

Did anyone who saw him — or didn’t see him — at his regular spot opposite Reynolda Manor Shopping Center, sitting cross-legged, muttering to himself or to unseen angels, imagine that if they asked his advice he might admonish them to “think at liberty, listen carefully, question what we think about relevant issues and hardships, and wonder well”?

Kenneth Wood died alone on cold concrete — a promise made but not kept, grieved by family and friends he had long kept at arm’s length but who gathered a few days later to remember and celebrate his life.

His ashes will not be interred with our city’s anonymous dead. He had a name and a story. Some of his ashes will be scattered over the Yadkin River as he requested. The remainder will be buried in the family plot in a small town in east Texas, alongside his grandparents.

One of the lasting memories from my youth is riding with my dad in his pick-up truck one day when a funeral procession approached. My dad pulled over, got out of the truck, stood facing the road and placed his sweat-stained baseball cap over his heart.

When he got back into the truck, I asked, “Who was that? Who died?”

“I don’t know,” he said, as he started the truck and we drove off.

“No man,” not the one who sells newspapers at the intersection or the one who plays air guitar on the street corner, “is an island entire of itself,” wrote John Donne. He is “a piece of the continent, a part of the main. …” His “death diminishes me … ”

His death should be noted. And respect should be paid.