Monday, December 15, 2008

Taking care of others was man's reason for being

DURHAM - Joe Barna pulls out a pile of construction paper cards made by the neighborhood children and explains who created each one. These are remembrances of his partner, Ken Beck, that Barna will hold on to for a long time.
He also shows off a framed black-and-white photo of Beck with Sadie, his three-legged terrier-pit bull mix, accompanied by a handwritten essay. For a school project exploring the meaning of "compassion," one of the neighborhood kids took the picture of Beck and Sadie and wrote how Beck's adoption of the wounded dog exemplified the word.

Beck died last month of a heart attack. Although he had been sick for many years, his death at 53 was a shock. His declining health had not kept him from being an omnipresent figure on Durham's Monticello Avenue, where he would walk his three dogs and talk to neighbors, their children, anyone who passed by.

"His thing was taking care of people," Barna said.

Since Beck's death, Barna has been taking the dogs out. He says strangers recognize the menagerie -- Kamala the Lhasa apso, Eban the Newfoundland mix and Sadie -- and stop him to inquire about Beck or offer condolences.

Barna and Beck lived together for years with their longtime friend, Thom Cranna, in the house where Beck grew up in north Durham. Beck and Barna met when both were vacationing on Fire Island, N.Y., in the mid '90s.

"We looked at each other, and he said 'Hi' and I said 'Hi,' and we were together from that moment until last Saturday," Barna said.

Barna was won over by Beck's magnetic smile. Beck used to tease Barna that his real attraction was to Barna's English cocker spaniel.

"He said that when he met me he really wasn't interested in me. He was interested in my dog, Nadine," Barna said, smiling.

He thought of others

When Beck and Barna lived in New York City, before they moved to Durham, Beck spent the summers in a rental house on Fire Island with Nadine. Barna would go out on the weekends.

Once, when Beck had to take an unexpected trip in the middle of the week, he arranged for a pet sitter to look after Nadine on the island while he was away. But Nadine was not happy. So Beck hired a limo to drive the cocker spaniel into the city to stay with Barna until he could return.

Barna said Beck was prone to both grand gestures and to helping people in small ways.

When Beck volunteered with Meals on Wheels, delivering food to shut-ins, he would regularly stop at the grocery store and buy extra provisions for his clients. He became attached to a couple of the women on his route and would get them treats on the holidays. Every year on Easter, he brought them a ham and baskets full of candy and toys.

Laura Kreps, a friend of Beck for 25 years, said she will most remember his sense of humor. "He never actually grew up," she said. "He was very boyish and puckish -- always."

The neighborhood children knew that he was a kindred spirit. Barna said Beck played with childlike zeal, jumping in their toy cars and driving around just like they did. When children got a new toy, Beck was the first person they'd think of.

"No matter what they'd get, they'd say, 'We've got to show Kenny,' " Barna said.

Others adored him

Kelly Cross, a Durham painter and friend of Beck, said he was struck by the procession of neighbors who came to the Monticello Avenue house the day after Beck died.

"There's this incredible sense of community in that neighborhood," he said. "People just adored him."

Barna and Cranna said they are grateful for the love their neighbors have shown, and that they appreciate how important Beck was to them. They enjoy an uncommon closeness in their community, in part because Beck brought people together.

"Kenny," Barna said, "was the key."

No comments: