Columns 2007

Memories of a good man

This is one of those columns I never imagined I would be writing. I always just assumed Ken would outlive me.  But a sleepy driver on a dark road in Minnesota ended his life much too early, if mercifully quickly.

I’d known Ken Petersen and his partner Rob for over 30 years.  We spent much of that time exchanging tacky Christmas presents. I always felt at a disadvantage in the competition. Rob and Ken were invariably able to overcome their inherent good taste with an even better sense of the absurd. My “Jesus on a Half Shell” is all the proof needed that they were the best at this exchange.

So you’d think with the kind of history we shared, I would have known a lot more about Ken than I obviously did after reading his obituary.  In a world with problems that sometimes seem overwhelming, Ken was living proof that one person can make a difference.

Among his many accomplishments, he could lay claim to being a pediatrician who served as both chief of pediatrics and chief medical officer at the Alaska Native Medical Center during his thirty some years of service there. He also worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a pediatric consultant on issues relating to the health of Alaska Native children. When he was compelled to take a mandatory retirement, he simply moved over to the World Health Organization as a consultant for the polio eradication program in Pakistan. Until his death, he continued as a volunteer consultant in Alaska on issues of infectious diseases in Alaska Native children.

My first encounter with Ken came when he and Rob Burgess made a proposal to me while I was the North Slope Borough Health Director in the mid 70s.  They would share one salary and live together in the village of Wainwright while studying how best to teach and train local people to become Community Health Aides.  It was a bold proposal. No Alaskan village of that size had ever before had one, let alone two physicians living full time in their community. And the lessons they learned that year still reverberate in the way Community Health Aides are taught and the methods and language used in compiling their manual.

My fondest memory of that time is the urgent call I received from Rob soon after he and Ken moved to Wainwright. The call was for a toilet seat cover. Seems that Rob, in his enthusiasm to live as healthily as possible with fairly primitive sanitation, decided to vent their honeybucket. What this actually accomplished, as anyone who has ever tried venting a honeybucket straight to the outside in an Arctic village will tell you, was to freeze the bucket and its contents. Ken found this out the next morning when he was the first to use it.  The metal seat was, to put it mildly, freezing.  The contents, I should add, were frozen solid.

We provided a cover for the seat; Ken and Rob thawed their bucket by means best not described in a publication sometimes read over a meal. I knew then that I had something special happening in Wainwright. Not only would these two dedicated people put their hearts and souls into finding the best way to teach health care providers in remote Alaska villages, they would also put their hearts and souls into each other. How else to explain why Ken didn’t immediately run to the airfield begging anyone who would listen for a flight away from the frozen toilet? They shared a love I’ve envied ever since, a love full of gentleness, respect and caring that will not die with Ken’s death.

Ken was a devout Lutheran, even though his church sometimes tried to negate the essence of who he was.  But Ken was not a man easily deterred. He knew his God was a God of love who would never turn away from an expression of love as fine and good as that which he shared with Rob.  So he embraced his church, singing with a clear and beautiful voice in its choir.

I’m reminded of the old poem by Edward Markham, “He drew a circle that shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.” Ken took us all into his circle of love. And we were the better for it.