In Memoriam: Bob Kenas

Sunday, April 24th, 2022

December 1942-March 2022

Dear Bob

Deborah phoned me with word of your death a couple of weeks ago.  Since then, you’ve been more present to me than even during the intense emails we’ve exchanged since the reunion I attended at your home in 1996. I regretfully declined to join any more of them because of the difficulty I’ve always experienced relating to individuals within the framework of the group. With no one was that contradiction between social and individual relationships more pronounced than with you.

Back in Netherland Park your role as the classic alpha male made you seem larger than life and me to almost disappear as the tiny omega called “mousie.” And when the girl I’d been in love with since fourth grade started going with you the annihilation felt complete.

By the time we reconnected in 1996, I’d been able to build a sense of self that didn’t depend on size, looks and prowess in sports, and you expressed an interest in me I found intensely flattering. But after the first hour or so of that event, I remember the old pattern of male bonding with talk about sports, and I receded to conversations with the women about family and books. Nevertheless, largely at your initiative we started writing to one another, and you encouraged me to voice long suppressed painful memories which you responded to with understanding and compassion.

The gap of time between our new connection and our childhood acquaintance created a perspective from which to view the shape of our lives, particularly in light of what it meant to grow old and face the end.

In 2019 we traded thoughts about efforts to deal with that by creating legacies  of scanned and cataloged photographs. Your words captured my own sense of both the importance and the futility of the attempt:

I think you and I share the same views on all of what you’re focused on!

I’ve digitized enormous number of slides and prints… the kids growing up, their hs and college sports, travel pics from all over Europe and the Middle East, etc.

Digitized super 8 movie film to DVDs and made copies for the three kids. I’ve done what can be done. The originals remain fairly neatly boxed… patiently awaiting our demise and eventual pitching. I just can’t.

Also boxed for each of the kids piles of their own prints that weren’t digitized.  Here they sit.

When I go down to my basement and look around some of the old stuff sitting there that I feel ‘connected’ to, I struggle with why I just can’t seem to let go and pitch it… framed pics, yearbooks,  bday cards, drawings from …. etc.

Maybe one snowy day this winter….

The most sustained of our conversations came two years ago in response to the death of LCB, another girl from Riverdale Park we had both been involved with—I as her early adolescent suitor, you as her longtime admirer and friend.

Earlier,  you had tried to lure me to the 2006 event with the promise that she would be there, part of your endeavor to maintain connections among all the members of the old group. Though that didn’t work out, it led Leslie and me into an exchange of reflections about our pasts informed by her rediscovery of a stash of letters I’d written to her 40 years earlier.

Upon your sending word of her passing, I came across media accounts of scandal attached to her illustrious career and wrote to you to commiserate, but also, in true teenage fashion, to gossip. Next morning, as I opened my computer to write a guilty retraction, I saw your reply sent at 2:00 AM the night before, detailing the starts and stops of your lifelong friendship and explaining how both the press and many of her distinguished colleagues had maligned her for understandable but largely unwarranted reasons.

That exchange was followed by a long phone conversation—I still recall during it walking up and down the hill in my back yard.

And then just a year ago, our last communication, in response to another person reaching the end of the road, in which you observed:

Lots of deaths piling up… covid- related in some cases  to be sure… but my feeling is that a lot of folks in our ‘age group’ may be dying sooner than they would be if not for the collateral emotional damage and outlook that we’ve been faced with.   Maybe I’m way off base!?!?

What got you wasn’t covid or its collateral damage, though it was another cruel disease. But “dying sooner” at 80, I need to believe, doesn’t require an explanation or a cause. It’s living longer that’s out of the ordinary—both a blessing and a burden.

Our connection, Bob, has been a gift for me, providing a unique chance to contemplate the whole of our lives, beginning to end.  Thanks.

Exchange with Richard Powers

Friday, February 28th, 2020

From: “Powers, Richard S” <rpowers@illinois.edu>

Subject: RE: ATTN: Richard Powers

Date: February 28, 2020 at 8:52:00 AM PST

To: “Steven R. Marx” <smarx@calpoly.edu>

Dear Steven Marx,

What pleasure it was to get your good and thoughtful letter.  Your words were very satisfying to hear, and I was delighted to hear of the connections between your personal journey and the journey I made while writing The Overstory.  It also moved me to learn of Eagle Waltz, whose productive response to a challenging situation would have made a wonderful addition to my fictional version of that challenge.  I look forward someday to hiking that trail he mapped and built.  Thanks for telling me about it, and for taking the time to write me with your generous words.

With gratitude,

Richard Powers

From: Steven R. Marx
Sent: Wednesday, February 26, 2020 3:31 PM
To: english@illinois.edu; Powers, Richard S
Subject: ATTN: Richard Powers

Dear Richard Powers

I’ve been meaning to write to you since last September when I finished reading The Overstory.  I kept putting it off until now because I felt shy of requesting the attention of an author I so admired. The fact that the book affected me so deeply and personally was outweighed by reluctance to add to what must be a heavy load of fan mail from others in whom it’s created a need to share some of their stories.  But after all this time, and as I ready to tackle The Echo Maker, the resistance has crumbled.

I learned about The Overstory from Eagle Waltz, an old friend from back-to-the-land hippy days near the end of the road in Lund, British Columbia, where I moved from New York with my wife Jan in 1970, lived in the woods for nine years, and where we return annually with our children and grandchildren. Eagle was another exile at the time, from Germany, who was entranced by the wilderness and horrified, like all of of us, by the systematic destruction of old growth forests whose grave markers we lived among in the form of gargantuan springboard-nicked stumps.  Rather than merely learning to live with that grief, Eagle decided to try to save the few grand specimens still scattered through endless slash and second or third growth plantations by mapping and building a 150 mile-long hiking trail  connecting the old sages. He calculated that opening the back country to locals and eventually tourists would produce support for his lifelong efforts to negotiate with logging companies and the government to spare the last remnant, which it has done.

The book’s connection with Eagle and its portrayal of the pain of outsiders who moved to the woods and ended up in industrial logging zones created one bond.  But then there was Stanford/Palo Alto/East Palo Alto.  I had moved there first in 1963 to go graduate school in English in order to avoid the draft after being kicked out of the Peace Corps for being “too intellectual” and having “the wrong attitude toward authority.” Jan and I met at a poetry seminar In the Free University of Palo Alto, got into lots of trouble and fun as student activists, married in the backyard of a cottage we rented in EPA, moved to NYC  where I taught at Columbia for three years and then emigrated to Canada. Nine years later we returned to Palo Alto so I could complete the dissertation on pastoral ideals and the life cycle I’d started fourteen years earlier. My interest in trees was rekindled when, unable to secure decent academic employment, I became  a part-time arborist.  A couple of years later upon yet another return to Stanford as lecturer I also worked on the tree crew and wrote a piece for the Stanford Magazine about the combination. After four years, and having secured  a tenure track job at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I gave a  capstone talk for “Literature and  the  Arts in Western Culture” entitled “Everythihg’s Dead but the Tree.”

Its clear from descriptions of other books of yours I plan to read that trees are but one region of your exploration, and I look forward to discovering some of the others. But the striking intersections between the incidents, places and passions so compellingly narrrated in this novel and episodes in my life make me feel uniquely part of The Overstory.


Steven Marx

Shakespeare and the Bible Invitation

Friday, January 12th, 1996

Erik Erikson correspondence

Monday, October 20th, 1980