Remembering David King

David King developed a love for books and words in the final years of his life, overcoming a learning disability and years of prejudice and shame. (Photo: Mark Kurtz)

In my work, I encounter extraordinary people all the time and often our paths cross in moments of great upheaval and change.

They’re heading off to war.  They’re starting a new business.  They’re fighting for a cause they believe will make the world a better place.  Sometimes they’re heading to prison or losing elections.

Times of change are when life gets interesting, right?

When I met David King a month or so ago, he told me with great candor about his particular journey, learning to read for the first time in his late forties.

“We were the retards,” he recalled, describing his childhood in the northern Champlain Valley.

People had labeled David all his life:  Retard, simple, slow. “I felt like, like, you know, how can I fix myself?”

With the help of a group called Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County, David had begun using children’s books and word games to overcome his learning disability.

For a journalist, it is a blessing and a privilege when someone is willing to speak openly about such painful and complex things.

And in our long conversations, in person and on the phone, David showed just how agile his mind was.  He told stories.  He used language with incredible sophistication, describing a struggle and a hard life that would have stopped most of us in our tracks.

I speak of David in the past tense, because he died suddenly and without warning on June 17th, just a couple of weeks after my profile of him aired.

“Twice a week, David gifted us with his courage, tenacity and sincerity,” wrote Norma Menard, head of the Clinton County literacy program, in a note to NCPR.

“He was pleased that his story gained for us several new tutors and inspired fellow learners. I thank Peter and Hilarie [David's volunteer tutors] for the hope, dignity and joy that David felt with every story that he read for his grandchildren.”

One of the things you learn as a journalist is that things are never quite what they seem.  There are layers to every life, every experience.  There are always twists, ambiguities.

I had hoped to profile David over the next year or so, tracking his growth, his learning.  Instead, it turns out I was catching a glimpse of him just at the very end of his life.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to real disappointment, true sadness.

Photo by Mark Kurtz for NCPR

In my story about David, I described how he held his children’s books in rough, workman’s hands.  One hand had the word ‘hate’ tattooed across the knuckles.

My reporter’s instincts tell me there were a lot more stories there to be told, and David was just honest and courageous and fiery enough to want to tell them.

That won’t happen now.  But I am glad and grateful that our paths crossed, at least for that moment.

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2 Comments on “Remembering David King”

  1. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    I had the opportunity to spend a couple hours with David as I photographed him and one of his his tutors, Hilarie Dickson, for the NCPR series on literacy. I was shocked and saddened when I got the e-mail on David’s passing from Brian yesterday. I was looking forward to seeing these images being used to help illustrate the ongoing series. I certainly didn’t expect that the images would be used as a remembrance of David as they are in this post by Brian. It was only a couple weeks ago that I photographed him. When I said it was an “opportunity” to spend some time with David, it was exactly that, a real opportunity. My work allows me to meet some pretty cool people and David was one of them. I was looking forward to the next opportunity to spend time with him and make some more photographs. Sadly, that will not happen. As I walked away from those couple hours with David, I truly found him and his effort courageous.

    Besides that, he was also just a really pleasant guy to hang out with for a couple hours.

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  2. George Nagle says:

    We are accustomed to believing that “important” news is the presidential campaign, the plight of the euro, or the search for the Higgs particle.

    Well, yes, such items are important. More important, and seldom reported, is the goodness and quiet courage of what Leona Helmsley called “little people.”

    That what they do isn’t “newsworthy” doesn’t detract from its significance.

    In the aggregate, the behaviour of many ordinary people constitute our society. The so-called ordinary often do extraordinary things. I’m humbled and challenged by their examples.

    Thank you, Brian and Mark, for telling us about David King, a remarkable man whose example will stay with me for a long time.

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