Wednesday, June 23, 2004

august kroll

One of the best men I've ever known suffered a massive stroke last night and is not expected to survive the day. August Kroll was a veteran of World War II, a Marine volunteer before Pearl Harbor who lost his right arm somewhere in the Pacific. He came home to marry, father three children, and spend his life teaching high school social studies. Most of his teaching career was spent in Seattle, although he spent several years in a teaching exchange program, taking his family to Australia and Europe. Before and after retiring, August worked in East and South Africa; he taught Swahili to his Seattle students, and his home was filled with African artwork.

I knew August for only the last ten years of his life. We were neighbors, sharing a duplex with a common yard and a common wall. He was opinionated and vocal, highly intelligent, and extraordinarily kind. One minute he'd be standing nose to nose with some neighborhood bully, giving him what for with a glint in his eyes that hinted he'd just love the chance to show what he was made of. The next he'd be talking philosophy with the local drunk.

He'd like to think he was an independent cuss, but he knew just about everyone in the neighborhood and everyone knew him. The past few years he'd planted some quite spectacular peonies and daylilies in the front of our homes. One time he told me about a couple who came up to look at one particularly beautiful deep red peony and engaged him in conversation. He cut off one of the blooms and presented it to the woman, who was so appreciative he was tickled pink even days later. But woe betide the person who conducted night raids on his flowers and left only chopped off stems and trampled plants. He had no good thing to say about you. Neither the people who brazenly looted his garden during the light of day, possibly assuming an 82-year-old would be a push over. Boy, were you wrong.

But what was it that made him so special? It wasn't just that we shared a birthday along with our yard and our wall. We had long talks on politics and history, I heard plenty of stories, such as the year he and his family lived perilously close to a Cadbury factory in Australia. I heard stories about his son, Keith, a well-respected research scientist, who died in 1997 of stomach cancer. I didn't hear near enough stories.

But it wasn't just his reminiscences that made him special. August Kroll had an amazingly strong sense of ethics, honed his whole life, but which had somehow remained a living, breathing philosophy instead of hardening into some intractable set of rights and wrongs. And he made those ethics be known to those around him in such a way that you felt it was easy to know what was the right thing to do. Not that it was easy to do it, but that once you'd figured out the right thing, you had no excuse but to do it, whatever it was. And you wanted to do it, because it was the right thing, but also because August Kroll would think well of you. He must have been an amazing teacher.