There are many kinds of heroes in this world. Ken Brown was a hero at living. He did it wonderfully well, and always with a laugh and a welcoming smile. He was an artist at life, and this made him a philosopher in an old sense of that word, whose art and love is life itself.
Ken was one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever known. We’d all be shaking our heads at the latest sorry bit of news from the larger world, until eventually Ken would find some humor buried in the mess. And year after year, he would plug away at helping that world become a better place, and encourage the rest of us to do likewise.
I’ve often wondered how he managed to remain so impervious to pessimism—unless it was just a side-effect of living all those years with his wife, Viona. But to remain actively engaged in the political issues of the day, decade after decade, and not give up hope, is as amazing as it must be rare. I’ve always suspected that it was his sense of humor that bridged the chasms of despair that tend to swallow lesser souls. He wasn’t short of real indignation when confronted by some brutal show of force or display of injustice, but he also knew how to laugh, and to offer up a joke —like some well-aimed shoe —at a misbehaving politician.
Ken was political, but he was also practical, in the house-painting sense of practical. He was the neighborhood go-to-guy if you needed a tool or help with some do-it-yourself project. He might not be able to find the right tool and, even if he found it, he might not always know how to use it correctly. But his innate optimism that things would somehow work out often got him surprisingly close to success, despite the odds. Sometimes, of course, things wouldn’t go so well, and the motor wouldn’t start, or he’d fall off the roof, or out of a tree.
And this past November Ken fell out of this world he loved so much.
I know that I wasn’t alone in feeling my own life stall with the news of Ken’s passing. The world felt off-kilter and a void opened up. It’s not from an unfamiliarity with death, but a familiarity with Ken, that made his death so absolutely implausible. A man that full of life seemed too large for such a set-back.
This current issue of the Peace Studies Bulletin is dedicated to Ken, to his life and our memories of it, collecting together many of the remarks offered at his memorial service on November 14, 2010. These are, by necessity, the merest fraction of all the memories there must be of Ken, spread around the globe from all those people he knew or touched, but we hope they offer a representative sample, and that they provide, for those who didn’t know Ken, some sense of his many dimensions.
I would like to close with a few memories of my own.
Ken was, for me, first a friend of my parents, when I was just a toddler. And then he was a
philosophy professor, full of mystery, playfulness, courage, and occasional insights. Eventually
he became a colleague, a mentor, and a close friend. He was the reason I returned to Manchester
University to teach philosophy.
When my children were young, warm evenings would sometimes find us back in Ken and Viona’s woods, around a fire, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, the children eventually either straggling home with their mother or else falling asleep in my arms, with the fire dying
down, Ken poking the coals with a stick as we talked into the night.
And how many hours were spent in Ken’s basement, brewing some of the best beer ever created by unpaid amateurs? I’d have to check our brewing log, but it seems we were easily past the
500 gallon mark, which is actually quite a lot of beer. That was by far the best of ways to spend
our few free hours at the end of each week, with the smell of hops permeating the floor boards
to the rooms above.
And one January we traveled to Cuba with a group of students —one of the last groups to go
down on an educational visa, before the Bush Administration strangled shut that avenue of
cultural exchange. Was it just a coincidence that Ken always managed to find some warm place
to visit each January? And Cuba was warm and lovely indeed. I remember sitting and talking on
the beach at night, listening to the ocean with its faint glow of surf; sharing two very good
Cuban cigars on the Church stoop where we were staying; exploring an eco-friendly farm and contemplating with
Ken the conversion of pig manure into cooking gas;
listening to a physician describe Cuban healthcare; and
eating a whole lot of fresh fruit, beans, and rice.
Ken, for me, was one long conversation —usually about politics and the broad spectrum of human folly, but
sometimes we talked about the wonders of human
existence, about the mystery lying just beneath the fabric
of our being. Not that we ever came to any answer worth
writing down, of course; it was enough just to put in some
time at the altar of wonder.
For this and a great deal more, he is missed.