Ken Novak was not overwhelmingly well-known to me; the eternally athletic, impossibly handsome, straight-talking, and earnest man was married to a longtime friend of my wife. We all have been neighbors along this breezy, coastal enclave of San Diego—our children have grown up under the same sunlit possibilities, along the same peaceful beaches, and in the same tension of meaning and materialism that attends this kind of bronzed American life.
The Angel of Death hadn’t been in the same ballpark with such an opponent for a very long time.
Still youthful, effervescent, lean, and wildly in love with his wife and children, Ken’s existence tenderly wove its way into the lives of even those of us who didn’t golf with him; didn’t jubilantly recite the lyrics and identify the band associated with virtually any pop hit from 1964 or 1997 with him; or didn’t gasp in esteem when he smoothly named the second-string third baseman from the roster of the major league baseball club that slipped out of the pennant race during the last week of the 1984 season.
Ken, a kind of suburban titan with chiseled features and a soul that delivered honey from a rock, died recently after fighting off cancer for longer than most normal people could sustain. The Angel of Death hadn’t been in the same ballpark with such an opponent for a very long time.
Derived from stern Midwestern timber, tempered by the unspeakably early and sudden death of his revered big brother, chastened by other challenges yet unwilling to negotiate with weakness, Ken Novak, an anonymous American icon, fielded, danced, and sang his way into the arms of his true sweetheart—and her grateful young offspring. One strong, swift star flew across the sky to California and yielded the quiet constellation of a family candelabrum.
Skipping the genetic formalities and recognizing the front door of the home he wished for, Ken embraced the mother and her children, straightened their backs, and cleaned their hearts. A stepfather myself, I listened to Ken’s college-age kids yesterday speak with dignity and courage about “Dad.” The word “father,” I realized, is not a biological term; it is a moral condition.
Men and women stood up, from Illinois and Ohio, and spoke in parallel narratives about a decent, single-minded, immaculate man who could gracefully shoot a basket as magnificently as he could lift the spirits of his friends. The eulogizers were not all natural presenters nor uniformly at home with grammar and syntax. Yet the subject matter, this man they loved, turned all of their uneven testimonies into a little bit of scripture.
There was neither a trace of guile nor a shade of self-absorption. Nobody at the dais was relishing his or her responsibility or looking for attention. They were looking for their friend, their cousin, their father, and, one in particular, for the man she worshiped and who made her feel beloved.
Yesterday, I heard about a great human being whose very luster remains in the way he shunned greatness. The silent beats between the musical notes were as lyrical as Kenneth Joseph Novak was real and just plain good.
Ben Kamin's books about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement are available via Amazon.com or the above web site.