Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kenneth Neal Wood 1933 - 2013

A person is a sort of place. In fact, a person may be a truer, more abiding place than any geographic location.

I have not relied on my father and mother for shelter in nearly forty years. But they have been that deep safe harbor. Even when I was far away, I knew that if I had to I could set a course and find shelter, strength, love.

That harbor lost its tall lighthouse last Saturday. We are all now at sea.

From his obituary: 

Kenneth Neal Wood spent his life teaching himself and others to seek out and pay attention to experience. He was a farm boy who grew up to be a minister, then turned to education before becoming director of experiential learning at Davidson College. In his last years he was a gardener and abiding friend of nature. He died Saturday. He was eighty years old.

The cause of death was amyloidosis, a rare disease involving the buildup of amyloid proteins in organ tissues, particularly the heart and digestive system, eventually causing their failure. He had been an exceptionally healthy and robust man. But for the disease, his family and friends had expected him to live another decade or more.

He was a quiet giant. He stood six feet four inches tall, all of it broad and muscled. He grew up milking cows and baling hay, hunting and fishing on days off. Once, hunting for meat on a distant relative’s ranch in Wyoming, he shot and killed a bull elk with a royal rack two inches off the Boone & Crockett record. Yet he gave up hunting altogether when his young children could not bear the carnage of the rabbits and pheasants he brought home for dinner.

He was a minister who eventually left the church because he felt it had failed to be the liberating institution it promised to be. As a minister he worked in the trenches of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s. He spent much of his professional life with young people encouraging forms of education that freed them to think for themselves.

After high school and before college, he and a friend spent a year driving around the American West in a Model A Ford, working on ranches and farms. For the rest of his life he would urge others to pursue their own adventures and learn firsthand from them.

In one of his early sermons as a Presbyterian minister, he celebrated the value of adventure.

“Late Wednesday afternoon,” he wrote in 1963, “I parked the car in front of the manse, stepped out, and was greeted by the excited little voice of my two-and-a-half year old daughter: ‘Hi Daddy, look where I am!’

“The voice was coming from an unfamiliar location, high up somewhere. I looked in all the upstairs windows, and then at the same instant the panic button was pressed. I spotted her fully twenty feet up a tree in the front of our house. A young eaglet on its first flight out of the nest couldn’t have been more proud and thrilled and excited than my little daughter beaming down at me from her perch....

“Pity the adult that cannot look upon a child straining to reach a perch far above what the adult world considers safe and not envy the reckless courage and the sense of victory that belongs to the young climber.... Pity the adult without an inner tree to climb.”

Ken Wood participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and two years later was arrested with others, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, on the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He organized his church in Orchard Park, New York, to work against inequality. He and other community leaders convinced Saul Alinsky to bring his Industrial Areas Foundation to organize Buffalo’s impoverished eastside.

Once one of his sons was told by a stranger in a pickup to go get his father and tell him there was a man outside who was going to “kick his ass.” When the son reported this news, his father assumed it was someone upset with his Christian politics.

Turned out it was a long-absent favorite cousin pulling everyone’s leg.

Ken Wood was born in 1933 in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up on farms at Evans Center and Sturgeon Point, on or near the shores of Lake Erie. After the year traveling out West, he studied history and psychology at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He spent summers earning money for college at farm and construction jobs, even stints on freight boats on the Great Lakes.

At Westminster he met Sandra Jean Colman, who became his wife, love, and life-long companion.

He studied theology and counseling at Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. In 1959 he became founding pastor of Northway United Presbyterian Church in Williamsport, Pa., and then in 1964 an associate pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Orchard Park, N.Y. There he developed PACT, or Park Action, a citizen’s organization for racial justice.

In 1968 he became director of the Lansing Area United Ministries, where he continued work on race and justice issues. These led him from church to school interventions. Throughout this period he worked with school dropouts and alienated teens. He helped create the People’s Learning Center. In 1971 he joined the Youth Development Corporation in Lansing. The following year he became a fellow with the National Program for Educational Leadership at Ohio State University.

Much of his professional life had been focused on youth, cultivating in them capacities for freedom, critical thinking, and learning from experience. In 1974 he became director of experiential learning at Davidson College, where he counseled students about lives and work they envisioned for themselves and helped them gain real-world experiences to explore their dreams and build competencies.

During his time at Davidson he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. In part because of that work he won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Davidson College. He and Sauni gutted and renovated the family’s old house on Main Street, where they continued to live.

Wood retired from Davidson in 1995, and spent his remaining years tending bees in his backyard, negotiating garden rights with woodchucks and deer, tramping Western North Carolina mountains in search of old-growth forests, reading, listening to music, attending to birds, visiting with family. He could watch a spider build its web for an entire morning and consider it time well spent.

Asked about high points of his life, he remembered volunteering with Sauni at state and national parks, climbing snowy mountains, hitchhiking in Newfoundland and going out to sea with its fishermen. He remembered adventures, abroad and at home.

He was preceded in death by parents, Christian Witmer Wood and Bessie Emily Wertman Wood; sister Janice Wood Tonder; and son Scot Kenneth Wood.

He is survived by his wife of fifty-eight years, Sandra; children, John Colman Wood and wife, Carol Young Wood, of Asheville, N.C.; Melinda Wood and husband, Irvin Wardlow, and daughter, Rosa, of Decatur, Ga.; Peter Neal Wood and wife, Patricia Sierra, and sons, Scot Salomon and Esteban Nathaniel, of Coral Gables, Fla. He is also survived by sister, Nancy Wood Mackenburg and partner Ron Smalt of Orchard Park, N.Y.; brother-in-law, sister Jan’s husband, Robert Tonder of McCaysville, Ga.; brothers-in-law, wife Sauni’s brothers, George Colman of Oaxaca, Mexico; Samuel Colman of Binghamton, N.Y.; Robert Colman of Montpelier, Vt.; and David Colman of Middlebury, Vt.; along with many loving nieces and nephews.

“Education,” he once wrote, “...should function to free people and thus enable us to act toward the solution of our personal and corporate problems. At times I am discouraged by the complexity and intractability of the problems. But I find within myself, my family, and in youth, abundant cause to hope and to work for both a better present and a better future.”

Ken Wood spent his life climbing such trees.

A celebration of Ken Wood’s life will be 2 p.m. Saturday, January 11, at the Davidson, N.C., Friends Meetinghouse on South Street.


chris said...

long live the inner tree climbers

John Colman Wood said...

Indeed. Thanks, Chris.

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