Saturday, October 31, 2009

21 Years


21 years.

That's a long time. A lifetime for some. For others, 21 years surpasses a lifetime.

I was a senior in college at 21 and excited to take a new Creative Writing course. Not surprisingly, much of my writing had turned darker than I had typically written before Ken's death. And much of it centered on him. I don't remember often consciously choosing to write about him, but that's where my thoughts naturally went.

One of our assignments that October was to write a description of a ghost. It certainly isn't my best writing; in fact, I recall that my professor didn't really "get it." But I think those of you reading will. So, in memory of my brother's suicide on Halloween, here was my response.

by Kristin Spengler

He treads sluggishly on his journey and slowly slithers through trees, hoping not to be discovered by any eye which can still see the future. Light is his enemy, as he is only comfortable with darkness as an escort. He hangs his head in shame so that he will not have to face his decision. His stature is slouched as he belabors every step on this world from his past. He freezes at the house which used to be his home; darkness has taken its place. His musty scent lingers as he roams through the incomplete household. His favorite obsession has become bursting into the dreams of others as quickly and suddenly as he abandoned his own. As he slowly lifts his head, his glowing red eyes strain to focus on me, then back at the ground. The pain he left behind for me seeps into all of the walls and possesses me until I have to gasp for air. I attempt to free myself of the nightmare we share and jut straight up in bed with only his words, "I'm sorry," gushing out of the door into the unknown.

From Emily (Morrison) Corbe

Kristin, I think this is a wonderful idea. I got to know your brother, Ken, pretty well. My best friend at the time was Wendi Grusy, and along with John Chabbott, we saw him a lot, every weekend for a while. My memories are his height and his deep voice, which were so very comforting and non-threatening, which is ironic....He saw the good in everyone. If you were bummed out (which I frequently was due to my unrequited crush on his friend!) he'd take the time to try and cheer me up. He was fiercely loyal and extremely intelligent. That much came through to me loud and clear. He loved Dire Straits, I remember his lunch table with all the Latin guys in the far right side, I remember laughing with him at "the Spot," his bellowing laugh! I was very distressed when I heard the sad news. His memory has stayed with me, maybe because I moved away so soon, although I think Ken's warmth and wit stays with everyone who knew him well; I am sure of it.

From Beth Canalichio

I remember mostly that Ken used to tease me about being a "freshman." Although being a freshman was akin to being the scum of the earth, he was always kind to me. Ken was so cool, laid back, and just an all-around nice guy. I stopped in to see him in Rehoboth when he was living there one summer. He was happy to see me and very welcoming. We share birthdays; I see from Kristin's post that he would have been 41. I am 38. I was shocked when he died and remember the funeral. I felt so sad. It brings a smile to my face to remember Ken!!!! Kristin - It is so awesome that you are keeping his memory alive!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Happy 41st Birthday

My friend Deena, me, Ken, and our grandpa
after a Swarthmore football game in 1986

I know I have been MIA from this blog for a while. Sometimes, I just need to get away from it. (I apologize to those of you who sent me new memories to post. You can find the new posts directly below this one.) Since this would have been my brother's 41st birthday, I felt it was appropriate to post something new.

Around this time of year, I am always reminded of what I was doing in 1988. You see, as an eleventh grade English teacher, I get swamped with requests for college recommendations. I take them all very seriously and make them all personal. One of our guidance counselors teases me that I do more recommendations than any other teacher in our school (which is probably true). If only we received a little extra pay or benefits for all of that work! Every few years -- this year being one of them -- I have a recommendation request for Swarthmore College. It's an extremely competitive, challenging, and beautiful school. It's also the school my brother attended when he chose to take his life.
Back in 1987, I was knee-deep in my college search. I had wonderful help from my parents who instilled in me the value of education and who genuinely seemed to enjoy touring various campuses with me. It also helped that my parents had lots of previous knowledge about colleges from my brother's search and their own wisdom. I wasn't the intellectual marvel or athlete that Ken was, but I had lots of extra-curricular activities in high school and a low tolerance for any grade that wasn't an "A." I also wanted to continue my involvement in music, even though I wasn't sure I would add this as a major (of course, I did decide to double-major and also complete secondary education certification; education was not a major nor a minor at my liberal arts college). I found several colleges I was interested in, and I narrowed them down to my top three. At some point, Ken nagged me to apply to Swarthmore, too. Ha! I thought. What a joke! They would never accept me. I am a realist (even though I admit that I have the occasional lofty dream). So I knew for a fact that my normal SAT scores would not qualify me for admission to such a prestigious college. My high school guidance counselor -- who couldn't pick me out of a line-up, by the way -- recommended that with excellent grades like mine, I should "try harder" the next time I took the SAT. (This is the same man who offered me the "guidance" that I should quit band and take physics instead. Try telling that to my music teacher parents and to the colleges who offered me music scholarships). Anyway, solely because I didn't want to hurt Ken's feelings, I sent away for a Swarthmore application.

One afternoon, soon after all of the college deadlines had passed, I remember sitting in our family room with my high school boyfriend. We were watching a brand new television show, and I was sitting on the carpeted floor. Ken came in and scoffed at the show. "What are you watching?!?" he asked with annoyance after a few seconds. "It's called The Oprah Winfrey Show," I told him. (Maybe I did know a thing or two back then after all!) He changed the subject and asked me how the college application and scholarship process was going. I told him the schools that had made the cut. He looked dismayed. "What about Swarthmore?" he asked. Now, I really never had any true intention of applying to Swarthmore and setting myself up for a rejection letter. Didn't he have any idea how smart he was? I would never be that smart. I told him what the deal breaker had been. "Swarthmore had three essay questions, Ken. Hard essay questions." Never mind that writing was my forte and that I wanted to be an English major. "I would have never gotten accepted to Swarthmore," I continued convincingly. I know all these years later that there was no chance of me ever being accepted there.

But Ken made a face. Then he said something I will never forget for the rest of my life. A sentence that has haunted me for all of these years after. "Oh....well, I spent a half hour in the admissions office telling them all the reasons why they should accept you." I can barely even type that. It hurts me to the core now just like it did then. And I doubt he would have ever told me had I actually applied.

I still know I wouldn't have been accepted. But why didn't I just complete the darn application? Why couldn't I have just done it for him? I had no idea that he really wanted me to go there and share his small college campus with him until then. What if I had been miraculously accepted and I could have been there for him when he needed me the most? What if...what if...what if....

I only got to visit my brother at Swarthmore a few times. My junior and senior years of high school were chock-full of commitments every single weekend for band, show choir, and private flute and vocal lessons, not to mention all of my academic commitments and what was left for my social calendar. But I will never forget the image that greeted me when I arrived at Ken's dorm room. This picture -- blown up -- was on his door for all to see:

Ken and Kristin, 1973

He never explained to me why that picture was taped to his door. But it made me proud. And when I think back to the memories I have of Ken, the Swarthmore application and this photo often come to mind as proof of how much my big brother cared. He wasn't especially fond of showing his emotions, but these two memories are reminders to me when I need them. While our relationship was often typical of a brother and sister who lived to agitate one another, I also have a few gems like these to remember what a gift he was to me and my family.

So, happy birthday, Ken. Thanks for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself, and thanks for being almost as proud to be my big brother as I was to be your little sister.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From Neil Cockerill

I recently heard of your website honoring Ken and I was very touched by the memorial. And yes, saddened that it has been 20 years since a great friend has passed.

My name is Neil Cockerill, and I am proud to say that I knew Ken very well. I had the very unique pleasure of being Ken’s roommate for our freshman year at Swarthmore. Imagine what you learn about someone sharing a 15’x20’ space for nine months. He was my first friend at college, and we remained friends until his unfortunate and devastating departure.

Suffice it to say that our pairing as roommates was a blessing for me, and sometimes a curse for poor Ken. You see, Ken had been at school roughly two weeks prior to freshman orientation to attend pre-season football practices. I arrived at school for the first time in the early afternoon and unloaded my things before he returned from practice. By the time he came back, he was greeted with an entirely transformed room; that is, three guitars, and an entire Marshall Stack amplifier system (occupying nearly 25% of the room), and large posters plastering the walls honoring the great guitars players of the time (think Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, etc.). And a half-sized basketball hoop with break-away rim. You should have seen his face. Priceless.

But within a few minutes we were chatting it up, talking about music, sports, and where we came from. As it turns out, we grew up relatively close geographically, as I was from Chestertown, MD. I had been to Caesar Rodney many times as a competing wrestler. I could tell immediately that Ken was very intelligent and more mature than most his age. I knew I could learn a lot from him, and I did.

Music was one of the topics we discussed daily. Ken was the biggest Stones fan I ever met, and I have yet to meet anyone in my life that compares. To this day I think of Ken every time I hear the Stones. I could almost predict the tunes that would be blasting whenever I came back to the room. If it wasn’t “Gimme Shelter,” it was “Symphony for the Devil” or “Paint it Black.” Maybe even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Most of the time he was belting out the lyrics without an ounce of self-consciousness. For the record, Ken was not a good vocalist. But he outweighed me by 75 pounds, so I let him sing to his heart’s content. Occasionally I’d come home to the Grateful Dead, though during his freshman year he wasn’t the Deadhead he was to become by his junior year. Meanwhile, he had to endure the likes of Rush and Metallica when I overtook the radio. But he never complained. In fact, I think we introduced each other to some new styles and learned to appreciate each other’s tastes. Ken was nothing if not open-minded.

Over that first year, we became good friends and had plenty of laughs. I distinctly remember a time when we were having one of our late night, slightly inebriated games of mini-basketball in the dorm room. In an effort to close out a tightly contested game of H-O-R-S-E, Ken ran across the room and propelled himself with a leap off the bed for what should have been an earth-shattering dunk. Instead, a slight miscalculation sent him well past the intended target, and culminated with a pseudo-swan-dive on his desk. Nothing survived impact and Ken’s head was left wedged between the desk, lamp and window sill. Post crash, I heard only his muffled, groaned concession……..“Game Over.” I laughed for a week. Ken laughed for two.

We had been placed on the 2nd floor of Willets dormitory, which quickly became the party hall of the entire campus. Call it luck (or at times unlucky if you were actually trying to get some work done). Several nights a week there were kegs in the hall, which brought a wide diversity of students from the campus population. What amazed me about Ken was that he could assimilate himself into any crowd, be it athletes, deadheads, nerds, etc. He was kind, funny and genuine. You always knew where you stood with Ken. While he was never one to dominate the conversation, when he spoke, he was insightful and witty beyond description.

I hope you and the rest of the Spengler family know how important Ken was to the friends’ lives he enriched. It is an honor to call him my friend, and I am a better person for having known him. This world was a much better place with him in it.

Take care and I will always remember Ken.

From Tom Leckrone

You are such a strong and wise person to have put this together. Thank you.

I just saw the announcement in the Swarthmore Bulletin, and I quickly read the posts by other Swatties. I was struck by the fact that others mentioned the directness and solidness of Ken that made him seem more mature than most of us. Ken was right down the hall from me during his freshman (my sophomore) year. He put up with Neil and his Marshall amp and all sorts of silliness that the room could barely contain (including a mini basketball hoop). I remember him reprimanding me once after I had (once again) hung around until someone asked me if I wanted the last slice of pizza, when I hadn't put any money in.

I sometimes had trouble sorting out priorities, emotions and the games people played, but he always seemed to cut right through it. He would stop me in the midst of my over-analysis with a direct question that clearly led to only one, common sense conclusion. He was always right on in assessing my state of mind. I was amazed with how quickly a group of great people from wide-ranging backgrounds coalesced around him. There was so much energy bristling everywhere -- academics, parties, sports, the social scene -- and he was crucial to maintaining the center for a lot of us. He didn't push himself into that role, but he kind of filled in the spaces to transform the conversation or the flow of activity. Without intending to hold sway, he regularly had the last word, and many of us really enjoyed watching that happen. It was clear to me that the amount of hot air and B.S. was always dramatically higher without Ken's presence. (I still remember him screwing up his face & saying, "Wa-a-h" when he had heard (or been guilty of) too much whining.

I really enjoyed exploring the campus with Ken -- walking across the railroad trestle, taking a short cut to the field house, or finding an underappreciated nook of the campus to enjoy a cold Yuengling. It really hurts to write this, but my most central feeling about Ken is that he loved life. He loved learning, loved ideas, loved nature, loved music, loved people. We were always listening to music together. I remember how pleased he was to have come up with a copy of Van's original recording of Brown Eyed Girl. Puzzling through the time signatures of King Crimson in his room. The floodgates that Kind of Blue opened. The trends of the Dead on the Hampton Beach bootlegs. His huge friend from high school materializing at midnight to play guitar 'til dawn, taking on the voice and persona of ancient bluesmen. Also, Ken caught my new girlfriend pulling out the speaker wires in his room sophomore year. It seems he had left the bootleg going when he went to class, and she was trying to take a nap. She couldn't find the switch, so she was pulling at wires when he came back. He gave me a hard time about that one. (Laura and I are still together, anyway...)

Ten years ago, Luke and I were looking into planting a weeping willow on the banks of the Crum on campus. It turned out that the Arboretum people wouldn't allow a willow to go in that area. But we do need to get one somewhere on campus. (Perhaps we need to try some guerrilla planting!)

This is a little out there, but I want to tell you about a dream I have once a year or so. I had a friend from high school, Tim, who was a defensive end of similar size, directness, and good-heartedness as Ken. His life ended a half year after Ken's. In my dream, Tim and Ken are across a field hanging out, soaking up the sun, and I am a good distance away, with other friends. In my dream, I always am drawn to run over and greet them, but I hold myself back. The underlying feeling is, if I acknowledge their existence, they will vanish from that beautiful scene. So I just hang back, and bask in a melancholic understanding of what good souls they were, and are.

Again, thank you and bless you.

From Tom Hengst

It seems like yesterday as the memories flood my mind as I read these words. Ken was a great friend, and I only wish we could have had more time to get to know each other better. I remember the day well and will never forget him. Sorry my words are few, but my mind is full of memories of an earlier time in which we all shared. I know how much his friendship meant to my sister (Deanna Hengst) and I know what he meant to me as well...

He is missed very, very much.

From Todd Simpson

When we were in school (10th grade) and played football together, Ken and guys like Eddie Twaites always made an effort to include me in social events and made me feel part of the team. They didn't have to do that, but they did. It takes a special person to open up an include someone. In this way and so many countless others, Ken was truly special. Ken was the first guy I knew who was social, athletic, and an academic. Prior to my friendship with Ken, I hadn't realized that the three could somehow exist together. His death still confuses me, but the thought of him still makes me smile all these years later. The interactions and relationships we have with others impact how we live our lives and relate to others around us. I like to believe that my friendship with Ken was one that has made me a better person.