Over dinner with a couple of my dad’s acquaintances in Singapore 30 years ago, one of them turned to me and said, the great thing about dining with your father is that you never know what’s going to happen. That was true. With my father as a guide deftly turning corners onto entirely new subjects, you never knew where the conversation might lead.
Given the breadth of his knowledge and experience, there were few blind alleys. Even if the discussion took a turn into unfamiliar or uninteresting territory, he’d quickly inject a bon mot, pulling down a fire escape and verbally leaping over the back wall into more congruous topics. A pedagogue with an actor’s gift for characterization, his ability to read people and adapt his tone and body language to a given situation was a thing to behold.
A veteran of the British Army, Kenneth perfected his German language skills interrogating suspected Nazis in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The secret for the interrogator, he told me, was to listen carefully and have a good memory. After all, fools and criminals can’t remember their lies.
Years later, as chairman of the University of Chicago’s Department of Germanic Languages, he was pulled over for speeding in one of the few controlled sections of the German Autobahn. The officer explained to him in German that he was driving over the speed limit. Kenneth feigned complete ignorance and a little confusion, and pointing said, “Me professor. Frankfurt – Freiburg. Frankfurt – Freiburg.” Flummoxed as Kenneth kept repeating this, the officer stepped back and conferred with his partner on what to do. Understanding everything they said and keeping a straight face wasn’t easy, but Kenneth stayed in character. The officer came back with a ticket and said in broken English, “Ze fine ist 10 marks. If you haff been a German it vould be 100 marks.”
His army service cured Kenneth of any desire to spend time exploring the great outdoors under canvas. Rather, nature was best enjoyed from the observation deck of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, or better still, a steam train clickity-clacking through the English countryside on a warm summer’s day, with an iced Thermos of very dry martinis to stave off dehydration. Countryside ambles on the English Downs with an Ordnance Survey map (never the same since they replaced hand-lettering with digital fonts) often led to speculation about abandoned rail lines, perhaps it’s a spur from Lewisham, with a reminder that Beeching was a complete fool.
His pastimes occasionally became his work and vice versa. Having decided against risking a professional acting career with a young family, Kenneth remained a gifted amateur, active in UofC productions as an actor and director. He chaired the UofC’s Roundtable show in the early days of public television. I think he harbored ambitions of writing, but, ‘could never find the right idea’. Instead, he jobbed as a translator for the UofC press on particularly challenging academic works, then, later, fiction. Translating Thomas Bernhardt was very satisfying, but his sensitive and lyrical translation of SAID’s ‘Landscapes of a Distant Mother’ is, for me, his best work.
His unpredictability could range from the playful, to the cryptic, to the imperious. If you could keep up with him, there was rarely a dull moment. Twice divorced, he finally met his soulmate and partner at an age when most cowboys are ready to hang up their spurs. Patricia showed him what being a ‘lucky sod’ truly means. While she indulged some of his more atavistic habits, she would also skillfully redirect his willful energy in positive ways. Though he didn’t live to get his congratulatory letter from the Queen, with Patricia’s support he lived a longer, richer and happier life than any of us might hope for.
In my twenties and living in England, Kenneth and I reframed our relationship from father and son to become the best of friends. By his definition of friends, we’d pick up our conversations where we’d left off, days, weeks, and even months before. And no matter whether we met in Chicago, or a rented cottage near Naseby in Northamptonshire, he and Patricia made it a home.
As you might expect from any dapper English gentleman, Kenneth’s taste for the ribald was Shakespearean. A proper British accent, a jacket and a cravat, made a bawdy sense of humor socially agreeable. Like all theater, it was in the timing. For many years his drinking buddies in the ‘Society of the Fifth Line’ would get together and share limericks. As a distantly associated member, I offer these five lines in closing:
Kenneth – a champion farter,
Eschewed the loo for a starter,
In taxis and lifts,
He often let rip,
With the look of an innocent martyr
Godspeed dear boy!
With lots of love,