Thursday, May 26, 2005

It Took a Village (Part I)

“Not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
~ I Corinthians 15:10

This past week has been full of excitement, but I must admit that I am very happy to be on this side of Keen’s graduation. I’m not one for a lot of pomp and circumstance, although I realize that it was certainly in order! However, I much prefer the “ordinariness” of everyday life.

A few days after graduation, Keen and I celebrated our 27th anniversary a little early by spending the night at our favorite hideaway, The Cottage House in historic Council Grove, Kansas. If you ever need a place to slow down and forget your worries or you just want to renew the love you share with your lifelong sweetheart, The Cottage House is the place to go.* In fact, the town of Council Grove as a whole is just delightful. We enjoyed dinner at the Hays House on Thursday evening, followed by a leisurely walk around town. On Friday morning I had a nice visit with my dear friend, Rebecca Miller. You may recall that I wrote a column about her titled, “The Picture of Contentment.” She is such an inspiration. She entertained me by playing a couple of songs on the violin (the same one her parents bought for her for $5.00 when she was a young girl), and she gave us some fresh-baked cookies.

Rebecca Miller with her violin

On Friday afternoon we ate at The Trail’s End Bakery and CafĂ©. The gentleman who served us was local attorney Kenneth McClintock who, along with his wife, started the non-profit organization that raised funds to renovate the historic building. Kenneth is known as the town historian, so we were treated to several interesting history lessons along with our delicious meal. (I highly recommend the Reuben sandwich made with homemade rye bread!)

From Council Grove we drove to Hayes, Kansas to spend Friday night. On Saturday we surprised our old friends, Hal & Jane Rogers, by attending the graduation party for their daughter, Angela. Several years ago, the Rogers family lived and worked on a ranch owned by Simon McGee, which is located along Highway 99 between Alta Vista and Alma.

Keen and I thoroughly enjoyed our mini-vacation before Keen had to buckle down to eight weeks of study in preparation for the bar exam in late July.

The only downside to our busy weekend is that I’m running way behind schedule, which is unfortunate because I want to devote this column to thanking everyone who encouraged and supported us in various ways before, during, and after the time Keen pursued his college education and law degree. I’ll most likely turn this into a two-part column.

Keen would be the first person to acknowledge that it took a village to help him accomplish his goal of earning a law degree. However, those of us whom he so graciously credits agree that he is the one who deserves the recognition for the hard work and determination he exhibited over the past six years.

The story begins in 1981 when a man by the name of Robert Fowks became the first person to suggest that Keen should consider the profession of law. Mr. Fowks was a longtime professor at Washburn Law School who served as an arbitrator in the first dispute Keen had with the Wabaunsee County Commissioners (over his use of the county landfill). After the arbitration panel ruled (2-1) in Keen’s favor, Professor Fowks earnestly offered the following words of advice to Keen:

“Listen, I’ve taught law for twenty-five years,” he began. “I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go, and I know how to pick them. Based on your performance today, you’ve got what it takes. I’m telling you – you should go to law school.”

Keen pondered that dream in his heart off and on for the next twenty years. Then my father, Joe Van Kirk, began telling us that we should check into what it would take for Keen to return to college for his degree. However, since Keen was working such long hours on the trash truck and had to support a family, we just couldn’t imagine how it would ever work out. So we never really pursued it (much to my father’s chagrin).

“Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” ~ Proverbs 11:14 (NKJV)

Then in the summer of 1998, Keen became the recipient of The Freedom Forum’s Free Spirit Award ( and $10,000.00. While attending the awards ceremony in San Francisco, we had the privilege of meeting former Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., who has the distinction of being the first American in space, and his wife, Louise. In addition to being a member of the Board of Trustees for The Freedom Forum, he was also on the Board of one of the top waste management companies in the country, Allied Waste. Mr. Shepard asked Keen if he would ever consider selling his business. Although we had just purchased a brand new trash truck six months earlier and had every intention of being in the trash business for the long haul (pardon the pun), the idea of selling out was definitely intriguing.

After returning home, Keen and I filled out an enormous amount of paperwork from Allied Waste. Unfortunately, the company decided that our trash truck was underutilized, and therefore they would not be interested in purchasing our company, Solid Waste Systems.

Keen’s hopes were dashed. Seemingly, his dreams of making a living “using his mind instead of his back” were dead in the water and he had no choice but to return to the day-to-day business of running the trash company.

In August 1998, Keen was a guest on Jim Cates’ radio talk show in Topeka, Kansas. I have a tape from the show, and recorded the following conversation. After talking about the Supreme Court case and taking a few calls from listeners, they were just about ready to close the show when Mr. Cates asked Keen this question:

“Any desire to pick up a few college credits in hopes of practicing law some day?”
“Well, I always joke about that,” Keen answered. “Several people have asked me why
I don’t become a lawyer. Of course, I’m a trashman, and I always tell them that I’d love to become a lawyer but I just couldn’t afford the cut in pay. I say that in jest, of course. I have a lot of respect for lawyers and all the schooling they have to go through – the college, the law school and the tremendous sacrifices they have to make. I’m not sure I’m there yet, to make that decision, but it is a dream. It would be something I’d really like to do if the situation presented itself.”
“Well, you’re young enough, you could certainly do that,” Mr. Cates said.

“Yes I could, I could,” Keen replied. “It’s within the realm [of possibility]... and what a life that would be.”

The very next month, my father, Joe Van Kirk, decided to come for a visit from his home in Florida. During his stay, he observed Keen talking on the phone to several individuals who had called to discuss some legal quandary or personal dilemma they were facing. These calls occupied several hours of Keen’s free time, which left very little time to visit with my father. Finally, my dad couldn’t remain quiet any longer, and he gave Keen the infamous “kitchen speech of 1998.” Dad emphatically stated: “Judas Priest, Keen! If you would have spent half as much time pursuing your college education as you spend on the phone trying to help people, you could have earned your degree by now! Then you’d be in a position to offer some real help!”

Well, that conversation resulted in what Oprah Winfrey refers to as “a light bulb moment.” A major light bulb moment. Yes, my dad’s comments inspired Keen to reconsider the possibility of selling the business and ignited his desire to pursue every avenue in pursuit of a college education and law degree.

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future. Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”
~ Proverbs 19:20-21(RSV)

To be continued ....

My Dad, Joe Van Kirk, with Keen

*The Cottage House Hotel is a part of Council Grove, Kansas' rich heritage. First a 3 room cottage next to a blacksmith and then a Boarding House built in the early 1870's by Reverend Joab Spencer. Owned and operated by the Mead/Marks family from 1879-1933. Major additions in 1898 and 1913. The Cottage House was "favorably known as a home for many of the commercial tourists who visited the city." After use as apartments during World War II, the hotel became the Stage Coach Motertel from 1959-1982. After restoration and renovation work in 1982-84 and 1988-89, the hotel beckons travelers once again. (Information courtesy of The Cottage House's original stationery.)

The Cottage House is located at 25 North Neosho, Council Grove, Kansas 66846 Telephone: (620)767-6828

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Dream Realized

“Learn to do right; seek justice, relieve the oppressed and correct the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
~ Isaiah 1:17 (Amp)

“To live fully, we must have dreams.”
~ Tom Parker, columnist, Blue Rapids, Kansas

Today is Saturday, May 14th, 2005; a day Keen has dreamt about for more than twenty years and worked towards for the last six and a half years.

Today is Keen’s graduation day.

The fog is thick outside my window, symbolizing how little any of us can claim to know about our future. The Bible tells us not to say, “I will go to this city and start a business and make a profit," but instead to say: “If the Lord wills, I will go to this city and set up a business and make a profit.” Therefore, Keen can say, if the Lord wills, then he will pass the bar exam on his first attempt, and if the Lord wills he will set up a private law practice in Topeka. Beyond that, we really can’t say.

But as Keen’s wife, I can say that I am so very proud of him and so very happy for him. I have watched him get up at 2:00 in the morning on bitter cold winter nights to warm up his trash truck. I have watched him don layers and layers of clothing in an attempt to protect himself from the elements as he hung off the back end of the trash truck, jumping up and down and running back and forth from the curb hauling heavy bags or cans of trash. I saw him repeat this process for nearly eighteen years, relying on God to help him through every mechanical breakdown and physical difficulty. Then I watched him dig so deep into his limited reservoir to somehow find the strength to wrestle with his four boys on the floor at night. I watched him find time – make time – to be a very present father to them. He took them swimming and camping and fishing. One time, while we were all camping at Council Grove, he took Jared and Josh canoeing. Keener was a baby, so he and I stayed back at the campsite. After quite a bit of time had passed, I began to worry. Then I saw Keen and my two young sons, ages six and four, trekking towards the campsite in their cut off jeans and t-shirts. The winds had picked up while they were out on the water and they ended up across the lake on the opposite shore, forcing them to hike back. Keen told the boys it was “Daddy’s Saturday Adventure.”

I have also witnessed the times when Keen was so weary and overwhelmed that he didn’t think he could make it one more day. This entry in my journal from 1994 depicts one of those times:

May 30, 1994 (12:30 a.m.)

I forgot to write about what happened last Monday, May 23rd. Keen just broke down. The water pump in the trash truck went out last Friday. The part had to be flown in and the repair could not be made until Monday. This meant that Keen could not run his Sunday night route, which put a lot of stress on him. He had to hope the part would come in on time and that the mechanics could fix it right away. Then he had to head out on his route and get everyone picked up. We had several calls about trash overflowing. It’s amazing – people must set their clocks by him because if he’s even a little late then they are on the phone wondering where he is.

On Monday morning Keen was at the kitchen table with his coffee and I left to take Kirk to Janie’s house [his babysitter], so that I could drive him to Topeka to pick up his truck. When I got back, I looked at him and he was just frozen and numb – like a zombie. Then his lips pursed in such a sad, sad way – almost like a small child’s pout. Then he began to cry and cry; the tears streamed down his face. I just reached out to hold him and cried with him. It was so sad.

I wrote down what he said. “I just don’t want another fight, another battle, another long day and that’s all I’ve got in front of me. I just can’t pick it up anymore. It’s just too heavy.” Then he cried some more. I held him and comforted him and cried with him. It broke my heart to see this God-fearing, hard working, loving father and husband so broken – so overwhelmed by his responsibilities. But I believe God will promote him one day. In fact just the night before he told [his good friend] Quentin, “I’ve never graduated from anything in my life, Quentin, and that’s always made me sad.” He believes God that he will graduate from something one day.


Lastly, I have watched Keen struggle to make his dream a reality. For the past six years, he has worked diligently on his studies, endeavoring to do everything within his power to achieve his goals. College was not a nine-to-five proposition. Not unlike the trash business, school took nearly everything he had from sunup to sundown – and then some. Keen used to pray that one day God would allow him to make a living using his mind, instead of his back. Today, when Keen receives his law degree, that prayer will be answered.

In December 2001, after taking classes year around in an effort to complete a four-year degree in political science in three years, Keen was dealt a disappointing setback. One week after graduating from Kansas State, Keen learned that he had not been accepted into Washburn University School of Law. He was understandably devastated by the unexpected turn of events; but once again, he picked himself up by his bootstraps and set out to prepare himself to retake the LSAT test. He improved his score, reapplied, and was overjoyed to learn that he had been admitted to Washburn for the fall semester.

During the summer of his senior year at Kansas State, Keen was filling out applications for law school when he decided to sit down and attempt to capture his feelings about exactly why he wanted to become a lawyer. I’d like to close by sharing the result of that exercise:

Why I Want to Become a Lawyer

By Keen A. Umbehr

July 13, 2001

I want to fight injustice. Not from afar, but up close. I want to get in the ring, where the fight is actually taking place. I can't rest until I'm involved in a controversy; a controversy that affects peoples’ lives.

I have to be where the heat is. I have to be where battles, lives and reputations are won and lost. I must be a part of the process where history is made. I must be a part of the history that shapes the future.

I am my brother's keeper. I am sure that I am morally obligated and chosen to fight for those who have no limbs, to run for those who have no feet, to die for those who haven't lived yet.

But only in the chambers of justice can injustice be fought and then, only by the chosen few. Who among us will stand and fight? Who will sacrifice his life for the accused? Who wants to even the score?


Why will I go? For money? No. Money never made a dying man less afraid seeing his end. Then for fame? Never. All the fame in the world will one day fade so that few will even remember your name or what you did.

No, I must become a lawyer for honor; to complete a life's unquenchable thirst. To test my courage when faced with certain defeat; to absorb it, transform it and cast it back with such fury and force that it shocks the conscience of arrogant barristers.

I must do the very thing that shortens my life. For what is a life good for if not to be sacrificed for a cause?

The stress, the strain, the tremendous expense of the soul is what I acknowledge. I must be a lawyer so I can die satisfied, a man who used his life for noble causes.

A poet must express himself in poems, an artist on canvas, a soldier on the battlefield, and I, in a court of law. The hardships I will endure; the chaos and strain I will bear the burden of, but just let me in. Let me fight for you. Choose me to go in your place.

Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
~ Isaiah 6:8 (NKJV)



Thursday, May 05, 2005

Good Grief

“Love . . . bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” ~ I Corinthians 13:7,8a (NKJV)

I hardly know where to begin. Tears fill my eyes as I sit down to share some remembrances from the very special weekend my sisters and I spent on Whidbey Island while attending the Celebration of Life ceremony for our sister, Patricia.

From the moment we landed in Seattle, we were treated like royalty by Nikki and Patricia’s friends and family. Nikki’s brother John, and two friends, Nola and Laura, picked us up at the airport. This alone was no small task, as it took three hours in rush-hour traffic (and a ride on the ferry) to make it back to the island.

Nikki made arrangements for us to stay in a wonderful little bungalow right on the beach with a breathtaking view of the mountains. A bald eagle perched on the end of the dock greeted Peggy & Connie, who arrived first. Nikki & Laura also placed a beautiful bouquet of flowers in our room, along with some snacks and beverages.

That evening, about 40-50 people gathered at a palatial lodge where another friend, Terry, had prepared an authentic Italian meal with all the trimmings. Terry generously donated the use of the lodge, which she had bid on earlier at a fund-raising auction. (She had intended to use it for her 50th birthday celebration.)

As I walked through the door of the lodge, I was overwhelmed by the love I felt in the room. Two of the very first people to greet us were Shawn and her two-year-old daughter, Lucy, who shared a home with Nikki & Patricia. I felt an immediate bond with both of them since I recalled hearing many “Lucy stories” from Patricia. Now it was Shawn’s turn to share “Patricia stories” with us. Shawn said that when Patricia came home Lucy would scream “PISHA!” and run full force into her arms for a big hug. When Shawn tried to explain that Pisha started a new life, Lucy decided they should sing Happy Birthday to Pisha.

Next I was introduced to Bev & Carolyn, who were the two friends that were swimming with Patricia and carried her to the beach after something went terribly wrong. We hugged and cried and talked as though we had known each other our entire lives. I met so many beautiful people that night and throughout the weekend, and I will cherish each and every one of them forever in my heart.

The Celebration of Life service was held the next day at Freeland Hall. As our sister Peggy wrote to our siblings who were unable to attend: “It is difficult to convey to you in words the intensity of the experience and the love and the respect shown for Patricia. It was all quite remarkable.”

The weather that day was absolutely perfect. Nikki even saw a bald eagle circling right above the hall when she arrived to set everything up. There were decorations and bouquets of flowers everywhere, and the walls and tables were filled with pictures of Patricia, along with pictures taken by Patricia. There were also balloons and an incredible array of desserts in honor of Patricia, who loved both.

Whenever I expressed my gratitude to one of the many people working on the preparations, their standard reply was: “Nikki organized everything – we’re just doing what she tells us to do.” I still don’t know how Nikki planned such an elaborate tribute to Patricia in the midst of her own grief, but I’m sure glad she did.

Approximately 200 people attended the memorial service, which began with two of Patricia’s friends, Diana & Sylvia, singing a beautiful song titled, “White Light,” which Diana wrote for Patricia when she was battling breast cancer. The first verse of the song is: “Angels are smiling (3x) - Blessing this room, filling this room, with white light.”

What followed was a series of tributes and accolades from several of Patricia’s friends, family and colleagues. In between the times of sharing we watched two slide shows. One was a collection of Patricia’s nature photographs shown to a magical song titled “Breaths,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. The other was a DVD Diana created for Patricia, which included some gripping video footage of Patricia playing on the beach and swimming in the ocean just fifteen minutes before she was stricken. At the very end there was a short clip of Patricia laughing while she playfully dodged the camera like a child. It was both heart warming and heart wrenching.

A friend of Patricia's named Linda Ferreira, stood up and read the following poem, (author unknown).

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight
I am the soft stars that shine at night
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.

Next, Linda read her own personal rendition of the above poem, which she wrote for Patricia. With her permission, I’d like to share the following excerpt with you:

I’m here with you in Lucy’s park – just look, you’ll see me swing
Gently in the morning breeze, the gift that sunrise brings
Look for me at sunset, I’ll remind you to have hope
These painful days will pass; you’ll see, together you will cope.

I’m sitting in the sunshine; I’m meditating in the rain
Close your eyes and pray my friends, it will help you ease your pain
At night time look toward heaven – see star light shine your way
I’m sitting with my mother – believe me, we’re okay.

Keep me in your hearts, my loves, we’ll hug again some day
Find some peace in knowing, that because of you, and your love for me
I will not fade away, I will not fade away.

At the end of the service, Diana and Sylvia led the group in a song titled, “Circle of Friends.” Everyone in the room reached across the isles and joined hands together as we sang and swayed slowly to the music:

Would you join my circle, my circle of friends?
It’s a long and winding chain that seems to have no end
Come with me and take my hand, we’ll reach around the world
Would you join my circle, my circle of friends?

The following day my sisters and I had breakfast with Nikki, Roxy and Jan (two friends who also attended the funeral service in Minnesota). We cried and laughed as we exchanged more Patricia stories. Then Roxy shared something that I will never forget. She said that Patricia left a message on their answering machine the Saturday before she left for Mexico saying that she really wanted to see Roxy and Laura before her trip. After Roxy learned of Patricia’s passing, she deeply regretted not being able to connect with her as they had hoped. Then she looked at each of us and said that she could see Patricia in our faces and hear her in our laughs, and because of that, she felt like she did get to see Patricia one more time after all.

I know this is a little long, but I just can’t close without sharing the most memorable event of all. The evening before we left, the four Van Kirk sisters gathered privately with Nikki, Bev and Carolyn, so they could share additional information about Patricia’s last day on earth and answer any questions we might have. Afterwards, we all held hands in a circle on the beach and, with tears streaming down our faces, we sang the chorus from “On Eagle’s Wings” by Michael Joncas:

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His hand.

Just then, as if on a heavenly cue, a giant bald eagle flew across the water right in front of us and swooped down to retrieve some food that the resort owner had placed on the shoreline. We all watched in utter amazement as we inhaled the wonder of it all.

Looking back on our weekend spent remembering Patricia with the members of her extended family, the following quote seems especially apropos: “Many people will walk in and out of your life; but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” Yes, we lost our sister, and because of that, we will never be the same. But now I can honestly say that we have gained many, many true friends who indeed left their “footprints on our hearts.”

My sister Mary summed it up best with something she said when Laura dropped us off at the airport. “Please tell everyone for us," she said, "We came here out of love for Patricia, but we’re leaving with love for you.”

“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” ~ I Corinthians 13:13 (NKJV)

Circle of Friends: Eileen, Nikki, Mary, Roxy, Connie, Jan & Peggy