Remembering the Wizard of Beluthahatchee: A eulogy celebrating the life of William Stetson Kennedy
By Erick Dittus
I am honored to be here, but I just wish I'd stopped by for another occasion.
It’s strange being in this familiar place, knowing that Stetson Kennedy won't come down the driveway pushing a wheelbarrow full of muck; or, pull up in that ratty convertible, bald head gleaming, waving a tattered beret; or, more likely, he'd be in the cottage, holding court at the kitchen table with strange faces from God knows where.
For 60-plus years, meeting strangers who were about to become friends was the norm at Beluthahatchee. Stetson was an adopter of people, a grand foster parent who left the light on for almost everyone.
I’m glad to see so many of his other "slightly wrinkled" children here today. I'm sure you, as well as his many friends who've passed, including: Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Joyce Ann Kennedy, Richard Wright, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mitchell Atalla and Studs Terkel all cherished his friendship.
Getting to Know the Wizard
Oh, but for anyone spending time with the wizard of Beluthahatchee, on his home turf, it could be a bit like holding a porcupine on your lap, while sitting through a grand, eloquent movie. On occasion you'd get pricked, when disagreements on politics, food or other serious matters arose.
But being with Stets, as he tossed chopped fish to the ever present birds, shook his head at CNN or talked about the old days, and more often the new days, was a pure delight.
When the news was bad, he'd say, "I've been telling people for years, when you see a positive trend, call me collect: and nobody's called."
He acknowledged positive, historic moments. However, he was far from sure about whether the election of African Americans, President Barack Obama and Mayor Alvin Brown, was a trend or a mere respite in the eye of the storm.
Getting the Call
You know, when friends die, I rarely exhibit the appropriate made-for-the-movies reaction. I'll say Kaddish and I'm sad, but rarely overwhelmed. Yet, with Stetson, when that call came, the pain was instantaneous and surreal.
I could barely breathe, and after my wife consoled me, as wives will do, with the reality of his age and a life well-lived, I fell into my office chair and spent a few days reading and re-reading dozens of Stetson Kennedy obits.
Several, including Diane Roberts of The Guardian and Paul Ortiz in Facing South, got it right. And Peggy Bulger, bless her heart, fought the good fight in clarifying Stetson's history in several publications.
However, a couple Florida writers, under the guise of objective journalism, magnified and distorted life facts. With "no fear" of his responding, they feebly -- and without subtlety -- tried to settle old scores.
In the midst of my stewing over these indiscretions, Sandra Parks Kennedy called and asked me to speak about my friendship with Stetson … and brought me to a more positive space. Thank you Sandra.
A Warts and All Hero
Over 26 years Stetson and I had several hundred conversations and interviews; and I think I knew him well.
Late nights, seated on the porch of this A-frame cedar cottage, perched above the gators and turtles, sipping glasses of fine Publix wine, or bottles of his favored Stellas and Peroni. He spoke, eyes glancing past the cypress, at the lights across the black waters.
A little like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, but not much, because while Gatsby stared off at a sentimental green light, Stetson had few illusions about his role in this society.
Jacksonville's A. Philip Randolph said, "Justice is never given. It is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process."
Stetson knew that in his business, there was no final destination. And unlike Randolph and James Weldon Johnson, after leaving for New York and later Europe, he returned to take a stand in an un-reconstructed Florida.
William Stetson Kennedy was an authentic warts and all hero. In the world of race relations, he stood head and shoulders above all the white male leaders that preceded and followed him along the banks of the St. John’s River…
He was imaginative, and yes, mischievous, but never quixotic, in battling Jim Crow. In 1950, when he took on then segregationist George Smathers, he knew he'd lose that election; however, in running he publicized an alternative view of politics and race.
A walking talking, MRI, a gregarious, bi-pedal X-ray machine, he looked deep below the PR-laden surface of the New South at the diseases of racism, greed, and environmental exploitation that plagued, and still plague, this land he called home.
A folk-intellect of the first order, an environmentalist, an iconoclastic author and oral historian, but most of all Stetson Kennedy was a man of courage. Without hesitation, he took on the evils of his and our days. And he remains a treasure for Florida and all of America, but especially, on this day, for you and me.
Stetson Kennedy, wherever you are, for me it was a great relationship, with the normal hills and valleys and plenty of joy. You gave me folk-wisdom, as you reminded me of my responsibilities as a human being, a writer, a father; and I love you for it.
We will greatly miss Stetson Kennedy: the Old Swamp Fox, the Wizard of Beluthahatchee, the Human Rights Colossus of St. John's and Duval Counties…
Yet, because of his life-long example and the wisdom he shared, we are better equipped to deal with both the sour … and the sweet … days ahead.
Thank you Stetson...
(Photo of Stetson Kennedy at his writing desk by Sean Kennedy via www.stetsonkennedy.com.)