by Dr. Norris Frederick
Our friend David McKnight died almost three years ago, but he is not forgotten. A year ago I concluded a three-part series on David and his journey from being voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school to living on the streets and being a street musician for many years in Durham. It’s a story about friendship, challenges, gifts, and ultimately about David – with the help of many friends – overcoming many of those challenges. (You can read the story here: part 1, part 2, and part 3).
David endeared himself to many people with his amazing musical ability, quick and gentle sense of humor, and his great knowledge of North Carolina and politics, often displayed in his email columns. Shortly after his death in January of 2017, The Durham Herald-Sun eulogized him beautifully in an editorial: “McKnight’s artistry with the violin and the guitar and the quiet warmth of his personality won the hearts of many in Durham, even if they knew him only as a street musician along Ninth Street or at the edge of the Durham Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.”
In August of that year, family and friends raised funds and dedicated a bench to David at the Durham Farmer’s Market. And just a few months ago, friends and family gathered to unveil a memorial on 9th street, where David sometimes lived, and in front of The Regulator Bookshop, where he often played.
The crowd waiting for the unveiling of the plaque in June, 2019.
David in the same spot about 2008
Both photos above by Bill Pope
The two leading people in getting the plaque placed were Carol Anderson, owner of Vaguely-Reminiscent on 9th street, and Pete McKnight, David’s brother. Pete was the creative force on the plaque and having it manufactured. Carol led the 9th Street Merchants Association to support the memorial.
Carol knew David for many years, and would frequently see and chat with him on 9th Street. They also saw each other regularly at the Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, where “David always managed to weave some tidbit about 9th Street into whatever song he was singing at the moment. When I started bringing my granddaughter with me he would immediately break into a children’s song to entertain her.”
At the dedication of the plaque, Carol said, “David was always upbeat and always had a kind word for everyone. I miss him and know all the regulars on 9th street miss him too.” Those words echo what so many of David’s Durham friends said to me.
So David will live on in the thoughts who those who come to know him through the plaque and in the memories of his family and friends. But there is more to this “living on” than in memories of the past. As I’ve come to a time in my life when I’ve lost numerous friends and family, people dear to me, I’ve thought often about the question of how they live on. I’m drawn to the answer of Frederick Buechner, who so perfectly expresses it in The Sacred Journey. (I’ve added italics in places.)
“… although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.
The people we loved. The people who loved us. The people who, for good or ill, taught us things. Dead and gone though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us—and through them we come to understand ourselves—in new ways too.…these people we once knew [are] saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us….
That is perhaps why to think of them is a matter not only of remembering them as they used to be but of seeing and hearing them as in some sense they are now. If they had things to say to us then, they have things to say to us now too, nor are they by any means always things we expect or the same things.”
I’m going to listen for what David has to say to me. I invite you to do the same for David or others who live on in your life.
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Photo credit top photo: Photo of David on plaque by Robert Duvall Smith
Photo of plaque on the building by Bill Pope