Kenny Ward died November 8, 2014, in Boston. He couldn’t travel more than a block with his emphysema, and had failed the mandatory fire-safety drills required by the group home he lived in and loved. Transfer to a nursing facility had been explained to him with great regret. Before that could happen, he removed his portable oxygen tank, walked peacefully into the room he’d shared for over a decade with hundreds of history books and jazz CDs, and lay down on his bed. He was 61 years old.
Kenny preferred to keep his past private; he may have been from St. Louis, or Milwaukee, or Philadelphia. He may have been the youngest of 11, and there were some clues that he might have been a musical prodigy. He once said that he could have gone the way of Sammy Davis, except that someone had warned him to flee the glitter of fame, to “get off Front Street” before it trapped him. It was a decision he never regretted. “I had good role models,” he said, “But I can’t tell you who they were, because they were famous.”
Years of unelaborated-upon wandering led to living in the woods, to the mental health system, and finally, to the group home. He carried his Bible everywhere in a back pocket. “Staying with God,” he explained.
Kenny kept track of whether this staff member had enjoyed his recent vacation, or that doctor’s daughter had finished her college applications. He liked to know. He had a scholar’s penetration into the details of the rich and famous, too - those who didn’t get off Front Street. Yet it was hard to find him. Hard literally, because even in summer he hid under layers of sweatshirts, wool caps, and a leather jacket. And hard figuratively. “I’m cheerful when I’m quiet,” he said, and you had to take his word for it, especially when he stopped speaking and eating for days. In those times, his roommates would check on him, bring him plates of food, attend to his laundry. “It’s private,” he would say, when he emerged from silence back to conversation. “I can’t talk, but inside I’m the same.”
The few who believe they understood Kenny were certain his silences were full of serenity. After his death, his best friend erected a shrine in the group home. It’s almost as if Kenny was living one room over, peacefully staying with God, not making a sound.
Did you know Kenny Ward? Share your memories in the comments section.