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John Kidwell: Say he was a poet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2009 - Editor's Note: A person who I had worked with briefly some years before called recently with a request. A lifelong friend of his, John Kidwell, had asked him to submit Kidwell's "The Poet" for publication after his death. While poetry and news publications often do not go well together, the poem made me want to know more about the author. And when John's son Tim sent in a requested photo, he also sent the eulogy he had delivered at a memorial mass in August. I have condensed his remarks and present them after the poem. ---Donna Korando

The Poet

If you remember me at all
Recall me as a poet.
For one who's mouthed too many words
To have life assessed
By measured speech
And thoughts slowly sifted
Is comforting
But even more
Redeeming.

So much of what I've done
Has not been worth the doing.
Too much of what I've said
Was better left unspoken.
How the world of commerce
Absorbed my thoughts and time.
I shame myself
To think how much
I've wasted.
Still there were
Moments of soulful satisfaction
But that world was
"Too much with me"
I lost my freedom
In free enterprise.

To make the perfect poem
That's an undertaking
Worthy of the best of men.
A Lifetime spent at that
Is time and thought well spent.
Freedom grows
Minds expand
When words compress
The sprouts which burst worth from within.

So when you recollect me
(It pains to think you might not)
Say "He was a poet".
I'd like that.
And somehow feel
I'd rest with
Greater peace and honor.

--John R. Kidwell (10/4/26 - 6/1/09)

For My Father, John Kidwell

Recently, an acquaintance expressed her condolences and asked, "Tell me, what was your father like?" I found myself quite uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Having now had time to think about her question, I hope my words will accomplish three things: first, that they will bring reverence and honor to my Dad's memory; second, that something I say will be familiar to you and resonate with your own experience of my Dad; and third, I also hope I can bring you something new and unfamiliar, something fresh and unexpected about this man we all have loved.

John Kidwell loved life. And he lived it not in little sips, but in great big gulps. Over the course of his life, John Kidwell had some very significant loves, people and experiences he treasured. I'd like to share with you some of my Dad's many loves.

John Kidwell loved to tease. Teasing is a dominant Kidwell gene that he successfully transmitted to most of his eight children. He teased his wife, his kids, his mother, his sisters, his in-laws, his grandchildren, business acquaintances, the local parish priest - Dad was an equal opportunity tease.

John Kidwell loved God. Deeply rooted in and richly sustained by his Catholic faith, Dad was a perpetual pilgrim and seeker. From the early Desert Fathers and Doctors of the Church to medieval mystics and contemplative voices like Meister Eckhard and Julian of Norwich, to more recent spiritual luminaries such as Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths, John Kidwell read and treasured them all.

My Dad's search to know and love God more deeply was not confined to the Christian experience. He knew that God's fingerprint was everywhere and he took great delight in the holy books of the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the writings of Lao Tsu, the teachings of the Buddha and many more. All were important influences in his spiritual journey. And while he was deeply respectful of other faiths, Dad was no syncretist. He was not interested in taking a bit from here, adding a little there, sprinkling and stirring the various religious experiences with the goal of cooking up some kind of mystic goulash. No, he was happy to set sail and explore the many waters of faith, but he did so from the barque of Peter, a humble, faithful follower of Christ and His Church.

John Kidwell loved nature. Sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, hiking through the hills of Tennessee, climbing Alaska's Denali, canoeing on Missouri's Current River, these were all holy experiences for my Dad. It was in these glorious settings that he experienced the truth in Hopkins' words: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

John Kidwell also loved a good competition. On the tennis court, the hockey rink, in a marathon race, Dad always had game. His competitive spirit was also evident in his professional life.

A product of the Depression, one of six children raised by a mother who was widowed when he was 4, John Kidwell knew hard times. From the seventh grade, he learned the value of work and earning one's way. A gifted communicator with a sharp, analytical mind, he found success in sales and marketing - as a driver salesman, Sales Manager, Brand Manager, Marketing Director and eventually as President of 7-Up Canada and six years later President, 7-Up USA. He was always grateful for the opportunity to apply his skills, advance the company's goals and in the process provide for himself and his growing family.

Work was rewarding, even gratifying. "But it's what I do. It's not who I am." he'd often say. John Kidwell understood the corporation's responsibility to return a profit to its shareholders. But he believed the corporation had another responsibility - and that was to help create a happier, more humane world. His corporate worldview was formed by the encyclical "Rerum Novarum," by the politics of FDR and by the example of Jesus Christ. For John Kidwell, the marketplace was not only an opportunity to build a career, but to build the City of God.

I find it very telling that when Dad's friends in business reflect on their experience working with him, they don't recount for me his marketing successes or his insight into the consumer; nor do they speak of his skills as a public speaker, a business leader and negotiator. They certainly could. Rather, what they choose to speak of is how much they admired and respected him for his integrity, his kindness, generosity and sense of fair play.

At the ripe old age of 52, he surprised many who didn't know him well. At the height of his career and what analysts refer to as one's "peak earning potential," Dad resigned as President of the 7-Up Co. and walked away from the business world. When asked what he intended to do, he said he had big plans. He was going to sail his boat and write. "But you'll do some consulting, won't you?" they asked "Sure," he'd reply with a grin. "I'll be consulting regularly with nature."

John Kidwell loved to write. Essays, short stories, poetry.

I would be terribly remiss if I failed to mention one more of Dad's very special loves. Yes, last but far from least, John Kidwell loved Grace O'Connor, our mother. The surest way to know and understand my Dad was to meet my Mom - and vice versa. Theirs was a rich and rewarding love affair, forged by faith in God and a deep respect for each other. And when life's storms struck, as inevitably they do, to God and to each other is where they always turned. They knew, as the poet Thomas Moore wrote, "There is no earthly sorrow that heaven cannot heal." Only four short months separated Mom's death and his, but for my father those four months were a heavy burden. "Deep, deep grief," he called it. But Dad wouldn't allow the sorrow to define his final days. There was still time for music, for laughter - and a Manhattan or two.

No fear, no self-pity, John Kidwell embraced his approaching death with a sense of awe and wonder. "My entire life," he would tell people, "has been a preamble to and preparation for this blessed event."

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