My brother just died. He wasn’t really my brother — I never had any siblings — but he was the closest thing to a brother I’ve ever had.
I first met Kenneth John Gibson in the fall of 1978, at Luther North High School on the northwest side of Chicago. We had a bunch of classes in common and we teamed up in Unified Science class the first year. The class was a 70s-modern concept that allowed students to choose from an assortment of paths to earn their grade, and at some point Ken and I realized we could game the system by working through a huge stack of science-based crossword puzzles. We spent weeks doing nothing else and got good grades that quarter.
We were both big science geeks. We stuck together as science class partners for the next two years. Sometimes, where there was big space news — like the space shuttle — the teachers would let us explain it to the class because we paid a lot more attention to space news than they did. We both played around with the (primitive) computer we had access to, and in our senior year we volunteered as lab assistants,
After high school, we both ended up going to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Ken took Mechanical Engineering like his father. He later switched his major to Business, and he went on to get an MBA from the Stuart School of Business at the downtown campus, where he also ended up working as their IT manager, taking care of the computer labs and the faculty personal computers. He also taught a few classes.
Ken and I settled into a pattern in our friendship. When I was dating the young lady who would become my wife, Ken and I didn’t see much of each other. Then after I got married, he and I and my wife got together every week or so to see a movie together. That pattern continued throughout our lives — we’d be thick as thieves for a year or so, and then we’d lose touch for a year or so. We wouldn’t talk for months, and they we’d play Borderlands online three or four times a week for months. I’ve heard from another of Ken’s friends who experienced a similar pattern.
Ken kept a lot of stuff to himself. He wasn’t exactly a secretive guy, but it somehow didn’t occur to him to voluntarily share things with his friends. I think he just didn’t realize other people might care. When his mother died — a wonderful woman whom I’d met many times — he didn’t mention it to me until six weeks later.
He dated a woman named Sandy and they moved in together for a few years before breaking up. That’s about all I know. He rarely talked about her with me. I only ever met Sandy a few times when she was visiting Ken at IIT. He never invited us over to their house, or brought her along when he joined my wife and I for a movie. Eventually, they broke up, but I don’t really know why. He didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to push him.
Ken went through a geocaching phase. He liked hunting for caches hidden by other players, and he hid a few caches of his own. Since he worked during the day, he did this at night. As you might imagine, this appeared suspicious enough to attract police attention, and more than once he found himself spread-eagle against a car, trying to explain geocaching to a hostile cop. It probably didn’t help that a few years earlier someone got pissed at something Ken did in traffic and falsely reported that Ken had pulled a gun. The case fell apart quickly, but I’ll bet that arrest came up every time a cop ran his driver’s license. (Naturally, Ken didn’t mention a word about any of these incidents until years after they happened.)
His appearance probably didn’t help. The photo above is more-or-less what Ken looked like for the last 20 years or so. We used to joke that he should be in the College Professor or Hobo quiz. (As I mentioned, he did teach college classes.) Those figures he’s holding are for a Flat Stanley project, where kids draw Stanley and mail him to people who pose with him in interesting places. Ken being Ken, he posed them in front of a famous Blues recording studio and the monument commemorating the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago.
One of the things I admired most about Ken was his basic kindness. Ken was always willing to help people. When he worked downtown, he didn’t just give money to the street people, he stopped to talk to them and got to know them. I remember him telling me about one guy he knew who later pulled up to him on the street to say hello. Ken was happy that the guy had pulled his life together well enough to afford a car.
When my mother died in 2009, I had to move in with my dad to take care of him. Ken helped me out several times, and he setup a computer for me so I could continue my consulting work while caring for my father.
A few years after starting this blog, I invited Ken to join me. He ended up writing over 50 posts.
At some point, Ken separated from Stuart School and moved out of Chicago to Antioch, Illinois, where he settled into semi-retirement taking care of his father. He liked that location because it was close enough to several hospitals for his dad, and it wasn’t too built-up.
Ken enjoyed the natural world. He replaced all the grass in his back yard with wild plants that were native to the Illinois prairie. It was insane to see. Some years the plants were over our heads.
Ken also loved watching the animals who lived in his area. He and his father were avid bird watchers, and he liked taking pictures. He also had cameras setup to record animal visitors at night. Check out his Flickr photostream and YouTube channel full of neighborhood critters.
One of our favorite activities together was driving around at night, listening to music, and just talking about whatever was on our minds — space, economics, computing, business, movies, books, and rather a lot of politics. We agreed about a lot of things, but Ken was more liberal and I was more libertarian, so we had our differences. There was a period a few years ago when he would sometimes get really worked up and start yelling at me. I didn’t call him on it, because I don’t think he quite meant it, but that was one of those periods when we drifted apart. When we picked up again later, he wasn’t angry any more.
Then one day in June of 2017, I got an unexpected call from Ken. The very first words out of his mouth were “I think I’ve just had a stroke and I need to go to the hospital.” Ken had suffered a stroke as a complication of congestive heart failure. A lot of stuff happened very quickly after that, and Ken and his father ended up living with us for a few months while Ken recovered. I wrote a bit more about that story in earlier blog posts: The day of the stroke, a few weeks later, and heart surgery. (To protect his privacy, I called him Leo in those posts and changed the name of the town he lived in, but those posts were about Ken and his dad.) Ever since, I’ve wondered if that angry period a few years earlier had been a symptom of a minor stroke.
After that, and for the next few years, Ken slowly recovered from his stroke. We drifted apart again during Covid, because neither of us wanted his father to catch it. I did help Ken get to and from the hospital a couple of times for heart care. Ken was able to drive, but hospital staff didn’t want him driving home after sedation. The last couple of times, he told me a neighbor was helping him.
Ken went to the hospital on Wednesday last week for an outpatient procedure, but there were complications, so they kept him overnight. I later found out that his neighbor, Joshua, went to check on Ken’s father that evening and found that he was in a lot of pain, so he called 911 and they took him to the same hospital Ken was at. The next morning, Ken was released and returned home. On Friday, Joshua went to check on Ken. He noticed Ken’s car was in the garage, but Ken wasn’t answering the door. Joshua called the police for a welfare check. When they entered the house, they found that Ken had died.
I spoke to Joshua on Saturday. It turns out he had been pretty good friends with Ken for about a year and a half. In typical Ken fashion, he hadn’t seen any reason to tell me anything more about Joshua than that he was “a neighbor,” not even his name. Joshua hadn’t heard much about me or my wife either. It was only by chance that we connected. I guess Ken probably didn’t think we’d be interested.
At this time, there are no plans for a funeral or memorial service since I don’t really know who his other friends are or how to get in touch with them. Also, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted a full traditional funeral and burial. We never really talked about such things, but I suspect that anything less than the full Weekend at Bernie’s treatment would be a disappointment.
Ken would have laughed at that. I’m going to miss him so bad.