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Ken Smothers, gardener and poet

  • Subject: [cg] Ken Smothers, gardener and poet
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Sat, 5 Feb 2005 06:14:03 -0800 (PST)

[Poster note: Ken was the 'head' gardener at the Urban
Ministry Community Garden in Charlotte, recent winner
of the Tom's of Maine, ACGA Grant. This article
appeared Friday, February 4, on the front page of the
Charlotte Observer, along with some of Ken's poetry.
We'll miss him.]

Charlotte, NC, Observer
Friday, Feb. 4, 2005


Charlotte's Ken Smothers made his mark on lives

By Tommy Tomlinson

So Ken Smothers' family was gathered at the funeral
home and somebody asked them a question on the
obituary form: What was his occupation?

They looked around at one another. Then they started
to laugh.

What was his occupation? Poet. Gardener. Woodcarver.
Singer. Expert on Frank Zappa lyrics. Student of the
stars. Speaker at college campuses and national
conventions. New friend to 42 third-graders.

Homeless man.

There's no way to reconcile all those things. Ken's
family and friends are having a memorial for him today
at the Urban Ministry Center and they won't even try.

All those feelings, all those memories -- joy,
sadness, frustration and love -- are jumbled and
tossed like a bag of used clothes.

It doesn't even help to start at the beginning. So
let's start at the end, with third-graders praying.

An easy question

The Rev. Michael Moulden faced the third-graders at
Trinity Episcopal School uptown. It was Monday and the
staff had waited until almost the end of the day.
Moulden has learned to be straight-up with kids. He
got right to it."I have something sad to tell you," he
said. "Ken had a heart attack and died."

A few children cried. A few others sat there silent.
Then they started asking questions.

Was he alone? How do you get a heart attack?

 And then Moulden asked a question back: What was it
about Ken we liked?

 That one was easy.

They had met Ken back in September when he came to the
school. (Trinity's third-graders do a service project
with the homeless every year.)

He talked about living under a bridge, and he read a
couple of his poems, and some of the kids were so
fascinated they stayed all the way through recess.

"He had this gentleness about him that made him not
scary, easy to talk to," said Tachi Dellinger, one of
the third-grade teachers. "He told one of our kids
that saying hello to a homeless person is a gift. He
made homeless people human."

A couple of weeks later Ken gave the kids a tour of
the Urban Ministry Center, and after that they came by
the center to serve food one day, and after that he
came to the school to help them make Christmas

One of the two third-grade classes saw him just a week
ago. They walked into the Main Library and Ken was at
one of the tables and the whole class went over and
wrapped around him.

They talked about all that on Monday. Moulden led a
prayer. And then he asked the kids if they had prayers
of their own.

One by one, the children spoke.

He was kind. I liked his poems. He made us laugh. I
miss Ken.

 Jumbled-up memories

This is how it works when a family is spread out. It's
hard to get everybody together except for weddings and
funerals. In Charlotte, an unfamiliar town, the
Smothers clan is having a family reunion. Because of

They all tried to help him over the last few years,
after he split with his wife and struggled with
depression. He hurt his back on the job back in the
'70s. Later he got hooked on the painkillers. That
began the slow ride down.

Three or four years ago he left his family in Yuma,
Ariz., and came to live with his dad in South
Carolina. But that didn't work out and he drifted to
Charlotte in the fall of 2002.

Not too long after, he called his brother, Randy, from
the hospital. Ken had been carving a bird feeder and
the knife had gashed his leg.

"I started asking about how to reach him," Randy said,
"and that's when I found out he was living in the

Again, the memories, all jumbled up.

Ken would drive his two daughters 175 miles to San
Diego for music lessons. The family sent money orders
to Charlotte and still don't know if he cashed them.

 He loved to sing and had a great voice. At one point
he was down to three teeth.

 No one gave up on Ken. But sometimes it would be
weeks before anybody heard from him. They tried to get
him on disability but he would miss doctor's
appointments. They learned to live with his choices,
learned to appreciate the moments they got.

Then he died.

And they came to Charlotte and learned what he'd done
with his life.

A poet and a helper

Ken was the guy who went to Washington in 2003 to
speak at a conference about the homeless. Ken was the
guy sent to Emory University in Atlanta to talk about
social struggle.Ken was the guy who grew herbs in the
Urban Ministry garden, the guy who passed out towels
on the way to the shower, the guy who snapped up free
tickets to the symphony, the guy who painted and
carved pipes and wrote these lines:

God won't give you more Than you can handle. Well, I'm
not so sure about that.

 He published two thin books of poems and performed
some of them at readings around town. He sold enough
books to buy a week or two at a motel when it got

And just the other day Ken got a job -- helping UNC
Charlotte get its students involved with Urban
Ministry. He had been doing that anyway, as a
volunteer, but now he was going to get paid for it.

On Saturday he had been at UNCC to use their
computers. He came uptown and met a friend at the
Transit Center. They had money to get a room for the

About 5:30, there at the Transit Center, Ken had a
heart attack. He was 51 and he died at the hospital.

Lawrence Cann, director of the art program at Urban
Ministry, said Ken talked sometimes about how low he
had been when he arrived in town: "He told me he came
to Charlotte to die."

Turns out he did.

But it also turned out that Charlotte is where he
remembered how to live.

How they saw him

After they prayed, the third-graders drew pictures.
The teachers said: Tell us what you thought of Ken.

The kids drew his gray ponytail. They drew his bottle
tree -- the colored bottles he put up on a pole
outside Urban Ministry. They drew the sun with Ken's

One child wrote on his drawing: Ken Had A Loving Hart.
Hes A Hero.

 At the bottom is a big man with a ponytail, standing

On his chest, the initials SK.

Super Ken.

Service Today

The memorial service for Ken Smothers is today at 2
p.m. at the Urban Ministry Center, 945 N. College St.

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