Remembering Karl

Karl King, 1969-2020. (courtesy of his family)

[Shorty: 3 mins. Full story: 20-minute read. Tea time.]

The blank screen intimidated me. So did my own inadequate expressions of friendship, and the futility of making up for them with words of inadequate tribute after his passing. I filled the emptiness with things I had written under no expectation or goal except to tell somebody. Describing Karl’s departure to Dave (who knew him, and his family) or Louise (who didn’t) – that was necessary, urgent, and without the chance to overthink. Easy.

(That was in October. I didn’t think my written farewell to a friend would be excruciating – I’d had months to prepare and several hospital visits. I’d said my goodbyes, hoping that he heard them at some level. But here I am, in the middle of a grey and chilling December, our tenth month of living small in the midst of an Earth-wide pandemic, and finally I’m ready to punch ‘Publish’ after fitful months of squeezing words from one of life’s bitter fruits.)

My blood brother and sisters are living, so lucky me. Fifteen years back, I was startled (though not surprised) to lose what felt an awful lot like the good kind of Big Brother. “Donny’ coached and quietly guided me early in my circuitous approach to manhood; I later worried over and covered for and, maybe, helped him a little, in his final years of circling the drain. He was a basketball coach who gave far more to the game and his players than it or they would return to him. Rest, Don.

This farewell also began with basketball. Again, that ever-so-American game drawn up by a displaced Canuck foregrounds another bit of Howdy family history, this time a gradually-acquired Younger Brother. I first knew Karl King when he was that southern Ontario rarity, a 1980s small-town hoopshead, and I was learning to teach English and coach high school ball. The good news: we got much farther than basketball in the ways that we knew each other, though until recently we still annoyed our puck-centric buddy Mike with hoops chatter. The bad news is that he’s gone, as we were beginning to deepen and better understand what bound us together. Worse, he has left behind a surprised and surprising second wife, widowed a bewilderingly short time after love and devotion suddenly bloomed. Karl’s mother has now buried her eldest, and his genuine siblings mourn the eldest child. Also pacing about is Karl’s 17-year-old son, slowly becoming aware that his pops might’ve been more than he suspected.

This is what I wrote to Dave to share with other retired staff of that 1980s rural high school, the Home of the Hurricanes, who had just heard of his death:

Karl suffered a shocking double-diagnosis of two cancers, one of them advanced and rare, early last fall. He and his second wife Savinna were a sweet if doomed story (they weren’t married that long ago) as they went together through all the rigours of treatment, hopeful possibilities and painful reverses. He went home from St. Joseph’s Hospital to die at home on the Credit Reserve, directly across Indian/Town Line Road from the house where Max and Karen raised him. He found great solace and inspiration in marrying the Anishinaabe heritage he had via his father and grandfather (and which he explored deeply and passionately), with his embrace of the Baha’i Faith. He was a gentle soul, a whip-smart mind, a helluva teacher, a man of the people and a global citizen.

I jump ahead to this piercing irony: on the very day that he died – October 13, 2020, the first day of school after the long weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving – the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit appeared on Karl King’s doorstep. (Lots of Kings on the Credit. Saults. Laformes.) The “New Credit Eagle”, as Karl’s email address proclaimed him, had just come home from weeks of palliative care in a Hamiton hospital to spend his last days. Chief Laforme was be-ribboned in the formal attire of his office, and he had just missed out on his intention to confer honour upon Karl while he yet lived. I can hear Brother King having a quiet chuckle about the timing, but it tore me up when I heard about it.

Reading the letter from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (MCFN) eased my heart: “has worked to increase the quality of life of our Community”; “significant and continuous service”; “promote[d] health and healing”; “role model for young people”; “ongoing dedication to teaching our young people about their culture and heritage”; “demonstrates integrity, generosity of spirit and collaboration”; and finally, its tribute to Karl’s demonstration of “the Seven Grandfather Teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth”. Covid-19, unsurprisingly, had delayed the MCFN Council’s process. They had hoped for some form of public ceremony. The letter Chief Laforme delivered spoke of possible media availability – it’s poignant, and given how long and how sturdily Karl had hung on before his sudden dip in the previous months, perfectly understandable. Sigh. The MCFN had everything right but the timing. That wasn’t the only temporal glitch, even beyond the obvious fact that Karl died before he reached his 52nd birthday.

That’s the short version. If you’re willing, I’d like you to know more.


Karl King grew up in Hagersville, a flat little quarrying centre that was a sporting rival to my mill-town home, 10 miles north. Hagersville borders the reserve lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. High school students from what was then called “New Credit”, as well as the larger Six Nations reserve, took buses into town. In the 1980s, Hagersville Secondary had the largest population of Indigenous students of any school in Canada, so it was said. Karl had his feet in both camps. His father Max had Mississauga heritage, while mother Karen is white. Karl lived in Hagersville and went to St. Mary’s school in town before HSS. My first year there was his last.

I never taught him or formally coached him, but he was the closest thing to a ballplayer that the Hurricanes had, and we had each other’s attention early. We had some good gym-talk, though most of the other baseball- and football- and lacrosse-first players that surrounded him on the team were much more outgoing than he was. Still, we found each other, as oddballs often do, and while I can’t remember what we talked about, it certainly centred on basketball.

Such a beautiful young man, a year or two before I met him. (courtesy of the King family)

What Karl remembered about me, as much as anything, was a tee-shirt I wore at practices sometimes, or maybe at an outdoorsy school fair. I think it was a blue thing that said, “One Planet, One People, Please”. Karl called it my “Baha’i shirt”. Probably the name of the Faith I had stumbled into in my teens did appear on the thing, though we never talked about it. Basketball was easier and safer. I was a rookie teacher at a public high school at a time when the Lord’s Prayer was on its way out. (Our school, pleasingly, on alternating days, went with Chief Dan George’s “O Great Spirit, Whose voice I hear in the wind…” supplication; another shining hymn of praise that dementia will have trouble scraping from my brain!). I wasn’t evangelizing in such an environment, never mind that Baha’is tend towards caution in sharing their message with others. Faith isn’t a sledgehammer.

Karl went off to the nearest university, Hamilton’s McMaster, and got an undergraduate degree – I want to say Political Science, but I’m not sure – but he was hungry for more. Karl was a seeking soul. His mind was always hungry. Punk rock, with all that energy and rage against unjust societal machinery, was another deep dive. (In his local weekly, Karl was interviewed upon high school graduation and had this advice for younger students: “Get involved! Don’t become another number, or a puppet of the system.”) Some friends were going to British Columbia for work and adventure, and he was all in there, too. And somewhere out West, he bumped into the Baha’is and began to learn more about that newest of the world religions: its call for religious, ethnic and gender solidarity, its harmonizing of science and spirit, its vision of a peaceful and united human family. (It’s awesome.)

And sure enough, basketball recurred in our acquaintance, even with Karl living far away. His much-younger brother, Matthew, was an awkward, skinny grade 6 kid who came over from Hagersville in the ‘90s to play some rep basketball in my town, on a team with my grade 4 son. Paternal pride had me convinced that my little guy would surpass him, but he didn’t love the game the way his father or the Kings did. Six years later (I hope Karl was back to see this game), Matt almost single-handedly brought the Hurricanes back from a steep half-time deficit to beat my alma mater, where I was then coaching, in the league championship. Later that same year, I got the chance to work with Matt and my best player — not my son, who’d already moved on to other interests — and it was no contest: as I drilled them, my guy was quicker, stronger and much more bouncy, but which one went on to play college ball? Matt. From his father and his big brother Karl, and from deep wells of his own, he had stores of great enthusiasm, smarts and a willingness to overcome whatever obstacle presented itself. He understood the game, and became an assistant coach at Lakehead University the instant that his playing eligibility was up. Thanks to Karl’s early tutelage and the growth of opportunity, Matt took complete advantage of a chance his older brother hadn’t had.

By the time Karl moved back into our home area, I was back there, too, after a year’s escape from the intense gravity of coaching to pursue a second crack at marital success. (So far, so good!) I learned of some of the places he’d been, physically and mentally. This was in the late ‘90s, and I began to know Karl as a man while he kept on investigating the Baha’i teachings in a community I was part of. Some of that was in my living room. He was gentle, thoughtful, kind. His desire to understand burned high and hot. Within a year or two, he joined the Faith, while at the same time he was immersing himself ever more enthusiastically in his Mississauga heritage. No conflict there, from what I understood and still understand, but I didn’t have to live it out. Karl was determined to do so. I applauded his pioneering spirit.

And then our growing friendship returned to a long-distance affair. My again-growing family moved to Ottawa in 2002, for work and pleasure and my release from the rickety but compelling coaching “empire” I had fevered to build. Emails ensued. Neither of us was much use on the phone. Somewhere in there was his sudden-seeming marriage to a woman I didn’t know, and the birth of a boy called Falcon. Karl doted on him and spoke of him constantly. And nearly as suddenly, that marriage was no more, and though I always thought he was broken by it and slow to mend, he worked hard at being Dad.

My own visits to down-home family tried to include a get-together with Karl, but that was always dependent on his Falcon Time. Rarely, I managed to wangle an invitation to join the two of them at, say, a Six Nations Arrows lacrosse game. What worked most often, when Falcon was with his mother, was a too-heavy breakfast, most often at MJ’s Diner on the outskirts of the Credit. Maple Leafs-loving Mike was the usual third suspect, as he and Karl had become best-buddies of a remarkable sort. Both were quiet, cerebral, book-loving dudes who had long carried weights of suffering, physical and mental, that not only sharpened their personal quests for understanding but also honed their compassion. Whenever I joined in to form the trio, luckier in love and health and other privileges than they were, they never made me feel shitty about it. This is a sweet thing to recall. Whatever evidence of their own struggles rose unavoidably to the conversational surface, it wasn’t dwelt on. Any shreds of self-pity were more likely to be mine. There were always laughs and banter and whatever basketball talk we could squeeze in before Mike started muttering anti-hoops heresies. But the three of us returned without fail to the book talk, the ideas, our shared iterations of what it meant to be human and a planetary citizen and, of course, the State of Education discussions.

Since 2002, my teaching career has been intermittent, including five years of teaching English in Chinese universities and periodic flurries of writing. Mike still works in education, now as a policy writer, though I’ll always think of him as among the greatest classroom teachers I’ve heard of. Karl was born to the education game — his father was a highly esteemed teacher and administrator at HSS and other area schools. He seemed to me to be under-employed. Karl was a long-time Educational Assistant at Lloyd S. King Elementary, the Credit reserve school named for his grandfather. Mike and I had each, periodically, suggested that he pursue better pay and more respect by becoming a teacher and possibly a school leader himself. It took me years to accept that Karl’s resistance to teaching wasn’t just fearful, but wise. There were several reasons for this.

Karl was bipolar. The extremes of his mental state could be dramatic, especially in his younger years. I never saw such an episode, or anything much resembling one; he could be intense, and hard to shake off a subject, but I liked and identified with these shiny hungers. So during the 2000s I struggled and often failed to accept his argument: he could not afford to, and would not, raise his stress level by being the teacher in charge. But surely that was a trap that his past had successfully laid to hijack his future! Surely he was limiting himself unnecessarily.

I learned to see it differently. I realized that his pursuit of equilibrium was much smarter and more far-seeing than my rah-rah pep talks and restless go-for-it! enthusiasms were. He knew himself. What’s more, and more important, he also knew – and I slowly came to understand this, too – that he was doing far more in his EA capacity than he could have achieved with report card deadlines and curriculum imperatives hanging over his head like a guillotine. Mike realized this earlier than I did, and backed Karl’s work quietly and relentlessly.

(Who was he to those students? Was he Mr. King? I suspect he was just Karl.)

For nigh on twenty years, my friend was no mere educational assistant, as essential as that job is. Karl was the extra-curricular King of the school, coaching just about everything going, even as he increasingly became the cultural conscience of the place. Supporting and paralleling his own traditional learning, Karl was a constant promoter of Ojibwe language programs, Indigenous authors and artists, the development of drumming and singing circles – all these, and more besides, would have been suffocated by the standard demands of classroom teaching. His colleagues at Lloyd S. King also came to recognize his value, and freed him up from some of the more routine elements of an EA’s job. More and more, he was able to focus on enriching the culture of traditional respect and practices, not only in the school but in the wider Credit community.

Karl and his son, somewhere around 2007. (courtesy of the King family)

It was immersive, as culture-building must be. For a hungry spirit like Karl’s, and as committed as he was to walking with integrity, it was hard to balance the identities he had built: family loyalist, committed father, determined educator and avid explorer of his Anishinaabe heritage. His practice of the Baha’i teachings came to seem, I guess, remote or divergent or distracting, or maybe it came down to a simple game of which one of these things does not fit with the others? (The local Baha’i community in the 2000s had also become small and elderly, and had little in common with Karl’s road at the time.) Our conversational range narrowed slightly for a decade or so, but we were never short of topics or friendly ease. Sure, Mike had his stopwatch out whenever talk turned to squeaky shoes on hardwood; that hadn’t changed, either. The other changes were slow and not unexpected. Karl got greyer, his beard bushier, his shirt buttons under greater stress (and not only due to pride!). All that. He was approaching his 50s, after all, and seemed cemented in bachelorhood and the cultural and spiritual decisions he had made.

Karl and I only saw each other once a summer vacation during the five years my family spent in northeastern China. A book, one I had long pondered and declaimed about, started to take shape there between 2012 and 2014, when we moved back home to Ottawa. An amalgam of memoir and self-help and social commentary, it was about men. And sports. And why men love sports so much. And how sports affects men. (You get the idea.) I recruited a small team of first readers, and Karl was a high draft pick. So was Mike. E-files had been sent, generous reading had been done, and I got to face my brave brotherhood late in 2014. I was terrified. Thrilled. Abashed. Karl had printed out, and returned to the old English teacher, a fat sheaf of paper, giving me his closely read, thoroughly annotated and utterly encouraging take on the project. “I love all of this”, he scribbled beside a breathless accounting of my childhood crush on sports. “Sometimes it made me cry,” he was completely unafraid to admit. And I knew it. Wow! This is a brother for life.

Timing, timing, timing. Despite brother King’s cheers and suggestions, and those of the rest of my positronic team, the book stalled. And Karl’s passing has now added a sting to that ongoing ache. It goes too far, and far too cornily, to say I let Karl down. Nor do I have the guts to proclaim that I’ll do it in his memory. (But I am finishing this overdue project; yes, reader, we’re getting close to the end.) And The Red Box of Book is sitting on my newly dedicated writing desk. (I imagine Karl remaining kindly and busily concerned in the spirit world. So I send a funky little prayer. Hey, younger brother, don’t be afraid to send me a spiritual butt-kick when I need one. Deal?)

One fine day, in 2017 or ’18, Karl emailed me. All was well. He was carrying on with all his cultural work at school and on the Rez, but he admitted that something was missing. He wondered if I could help him to reconnect with Baha’i thought and people, because, he said, he couldn’t get the global vision of Baha’u’llah off his mind. I hope I helped, though Karl was a bulldog and didn’t really need me. “Karl was a searcher,” Mike reminded me recently. Not long after, I met Kevin Locke, a great Lakota hoop dancer and musician who is one of the first Baha’is among his people. I got a signed copy of his book, Arising, with an encouraging note to Karl. We had some jam-packed email exchanges, but he had arrived at the point where the Baha’i message, with its affirmation that the Creator has left none of the human family without guidance, fit snugly on the same shelf as Indigenous wisdom.

He found companionship among the Baha’is of nearby Hamilton, among them a woman named Savinna, whom he had known casually fifteen years before when both were otherwise married. I knew her; she’d been in a youth class I’d taught decades ago. Karl spoke of her often enough that I began to wonder if there wasn’t something more than studious friendship involved. I think Karl realized this before I did! But their coming together, in an eventual second marriage for each of them, was loaded down with pain and foreboding.

They weren’t together long before Karl got his life sentence — namely, cancer meant his months were numbered — in late summer, 2019. I was in immediate mourning. There was no hint of this from Karl. He took cancer, in the several forms in which it assailed him, as a challenge and an opportunity. He was relentlessly optimistic, unsinkably daring in seeking alternative therapies and approaches. He prayed and studied like crazy. He endured chemotherapy bouts like a champion, hopefulness intact. He and Savinna saw their bond as essentially spiritual. She was a pillar of support, and advice, and used her professional standing, adjacent to medicine, to help Karl navigate the system and seek second (and third) opinions. He sent detailed, shudderingly frank and despair-inducing updates that never appeared to damage his resolve or dampen his courage. Their courage and resolve — Karl and Savinna decided they would marry, come what may, and so they did, though treatment schedules and bureaucratic barriers and other snafus meant that it came later than they had wanted. It was tender and painful and inspiring to watch from afar. And from March of 2020, Covid-19 meant that was the only way for me.

I was down home from Ottawa on distanced visits to family on a couple of occasions, but Karl’s condition was too tenuous to even consider a mid-pandemic get-together. I finally got the call at the end of September. Karl had been hospitalized for palliative care in Hamilton, having quite suddenly – less than two months after his and Savinna’s quiet wedding day – taken a downward turn. I launched my third deathwatch drive from Ottawa. “Big Brother” Don, my old coach, had died suddenly in ’05. I nearly got down home in ’06 in time for my mother’s last breaths, but got to spend a prayerful hour with her in the room where she had left her body behind.

This time, I drove hard to get a hoped-for final hour or two, but Karl surprised us all again. He was not conscious for any of the time I visited over three days, though I had wonderful conversations with friends old and new, including a pair of fine, coaching-heavy tongue-wags with brother Matt, now (by a process I fail to understand) a 40-year-old man. I also had a poignant reacquaintance with Savinna, who had a cot by his bedside and rarely even left the room. I had a few one-way murmurs with Karl, too, reminding both of us what he meant to me, and how well he had done, and how non-existent were his debts to any of us. Time for him to leave, I thought. This has gone on long enough.

And I returned to Ottawa, and he lived on. He returned to consciousness. He wanted to go back to his home on the Credit reserve for his last days. He looked out over familiar fields and woods. He had some final Falcon time. Savinna got to hear I love you once more. He was back within a full-court pass of his mother and two sisters, and minutes from Matt and the other relations. It was less than three years since husband and father Maxwell King, the family patriarch, had died. It must have been terribly hard. Yet I couldn’t help being grateful for Karl’s last few days of awareness, and for the final good-byes of those who meant the most to him. He died near all the former students and people of that territory he had dedicated himself so earnestly to serve. And there on his doorstep, on the day he passed, was Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation Chief, Stacey Laforme.

Your dedication to serving our nation’s children will not be forgotten,” concluded the text of the MCFN‘s first-ever Community Volunteer Award, delivered by Laforme on that heavy day. Only days later arrived a lovely message of condolence from the Chief and Council. I think my favourite part was when they quoted a student of Karl’s at Lloyd S. King, who was asked to describe him. The child said one word: “Kind.” (Not a bad epitaph.) The council continued, “In the midst of a pandemic, in the world challenged by racism, that one word says so much about Karl. It speaks to his heart, his culture, his beliefs and it is a legacy to which we should all strive.” Of course I want to shout out all the ways in which he was more than “just” that, but sometimes it all comes down to kindness.

My friend Louise, an artist and educator from the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation (Yukon), never met Karl. Among the mighty Indigenous voices in the Baha’i community, Louise appreciated the balance Karl was seeking between a visionary world fellowship and his Ojibwe roots. She sent me her sympathies on Karl’s death. I replied,

Thanks, Louise. His end was far too soon but his return to the Baha’i community will have ripples that go on in that region. He is, I believe, the first believer among his people and had a Baha’i funeral on a sunny day on the reserve. Sweetgrass burned, an eloquent Indigenous blessing was given, and a small gathering also experienced the Baha’i writings. I wish I could’ve been there. Karl was the pillar of cultural and athletic endeavours in the elementary school named after his grandfather. It will take some time for them, and all of us, to realize who he was and what we’ve lost, and much will be done in his name and via his inspiration.

I hope for this to be true of me. There is much to be inspired by in the life of Maxwell Karl King. Farewell, younger brother. May you look kindly upon us who are left behind. See you in the Great Diner in the Sky.



Comment (1)

  1. Joe

    Wonderful tribute, Jay. These memories are so important, and especially thanks for being such a Friend.

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