John McKernan

“Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.”

–The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Bob Dylan

The headline of the lead article in the Sunday April 27th Post Standard was “How a lonely old man died of exposure at the home that was supposed to care for him.”

In March of 2006 John McKernan, suffering from dementia, wandered away from an adult home and froze to death wearing only a T-shirt and a diaper. The policy issue is lax state regulation of adult homes. The motivating cause was greed, since the adult home refused to transfer the patient to a secure facility, despite the recommendations of D.S.S. and University Hospital.

But I’m not writing about those issues. The internet headline for the article is “A man who cast no shadow.” That’s not entirely true. As the article mentioned, John McKernan was a member of Syracuse United Neighbors. John served on our Board of Directors and had leadership roles in two of our neighborhood groups.

I knew John McKernan. When I first started at SUN in 1994, he was one of the co-chairs of the Southside Coalition, the neighborhood group with which I still work. He lived on W. Newell St. near McKinley-Brighton school. During my first year with SUN, the two big issues on the Southside were centered in his immediate neighborhood: the drug dealing and vacant houses on Cannon St. and the attempt to turn the old Enrico’s restaurant on the corner of W. Newell and Midland into a bar/convenience store.

The article mentioned that John did not possess “a warm and fuzzy” personality. One of the few relatives still in touch with John is quoted as saying that “John was not really a pleasant person.” This could be true, especially as the twin evils of alcoholism and dementia began to work on John. I remember some acidic comments about people, both inside and outside of SUN, that he felt were talking nonsense or were none too bright. But I also remember other moments.

The day before I was to start work at SUN, my mother passed away. My start date got pushed back a week and I was unable to attend the monthly meeting of the Southside Coalition. A day after the funeral I received a wonderful note in the mail from John, expressing his sympathy and noting that losing his mother had been a difficult time for him as well. I had met John all of one time, at an interview before the Board of Directors.

I also remember John, having moved to W. Onondaga Street, helping stage a rally at City Hall to convince then Mayor Roy Bernardi to finance the reconstruction of Fire Station 6 on the near west side. This commitment had originally been made by Mayor Tom Young and Bernardi was trying like hell to wriggle out from underneath his predecessor’s promise..

SUN loaded up ashes and debris from a fire on the near-west side, put them into an old fashioned chamber pot, and carried them from the old Fire Station on Oswego St. down to the Mayor’s City hall office. John carried the pot on the final leg of its journey up the stairs, placed it in front of the Mayor’s locked door and led us all in a round of the chant he had coined: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Mayor Bernardi, don’t break our trust.”

I feel badly that we lost touch with John after he moved off of W. Onondaga St., but that’s not unusual for an organization like ours. New residents, new issues, SUN continues to move on. People have a web of connections that prevent themselves from becoming the kind of person that doesn’t cast a shadow. Our families, friends, schools, churches and social organizations provide the social interaction that defines humanity. John burned through all these connections and was left to face the end of life alone, ill and demented.

John probably wouldn’t have approved of my epigram at the top of this post: Bob Dylan at his folkie populist heights. A student of classical music, John liked his culture high. But I can’t help it. Now is the time for tears.

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