Friendship and David McKnight: Homeless, Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend

By Dr. Norris Frederick
Third and Final Part (part one is here and part two here)

 In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge….
But friendship is not only necessary but also noble;
for we praise those who love their friends,
and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends;
and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.”
— Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics[1]

 

David McKnight at the Durham Farmer’s Market, Sept. 2014.
Photo by Bill Pope

David encountered many challenges in the years between being voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school and ending up living on the streets in Durham.  All along the way, however, were friends who both were drawn to David because of his gifts and who he was, and who also nurtured those gifts and David.  As a result, sometimes, together they brought about amazing events.

A heads-up:  this is a long post, but it all seemed essential to the final installment on friendship and David.  Read it as you wish.  I suggest a glass of your favorite beverage and finding a little time.  Or just listen to the music, watch the videos, look at the pictures and browse around.

“In Poverty, Too, As In All Other Misfortunes, People Think Friends To Be Their Only Refuge”

Between 2009 and 2016, several things happened that substantially improved David’s life.  In 2009, he began playing his violin each Saturday at the Durham Farmer’s Market. The $100 he could make in tips became his main source of income[2] and provided him more predictability about his resources after two decades of playing on the street.  And the exposure to people who otherwise might never have heard or seen him brought joy to many, as witnessed by the mother and child with David above.

Of course, even with a little more money, David was still living on the streets.  Friend Bill Pope captures David’s astounding routine for all those years:  “David was blessed with a loving guardian angel.  He never experienced any harm.  He avoided homeless shelters. Police watched out for him. Bartenders often slipped him food and drinks. He was amazingly resourceful and resilient.  Satisfaction, a sports bar and restaurant, became his living room; Kinkos served as his late-night office, and the city buses, his bedroom.  He drank beer, ate dinner, and socialized until closing. He would then go to Kinkos and pay several dollars for the use of a computer (this was before he had access to Duke Library and the internet). For several hours he wrote editorials, made copies, and mailed them the next day to newspapers. Early the next morning he would buy several different newspapers and carried them in large paper bags.  He memorized all the bus routes.  Starting around 5 a.m. he would hop on the first bus and pay $2.00 for a day pass and immediately fall asleep sitting up.  A good ride would last 90 minutes. In between bus rides, he would play his violin or guitar on 9th Street in Durham, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.”

Even given David’s resourcefulness and resiliency, he could not have made it all those years on the streets without friends.  As Aristotle writes, “In poverty, too, as in all other misfortunes, people think friends to be their only refuge.”[i]

David was fortunate to have so many friends as his refuge.  When the overnight temperature would get below freezing, Bill Yaeger would get into his car and ride around looking for David to offer him a room for the night.  Sometimes he found David, other times he did not.  One day when there was an unexpected snowstorm, Bill found David on Main Street in front of Satisfaction, walking in a circle.  He was disoriented but got into the car, and Bill drove home to house David for the night.  Friend and former band member Pattie LeSueur remembers, “”Driving down Ninth Street, I would always just keep my eyes peeled for him, and a lot of times I would see him at the bus station. I’d stop and give him a ride. If you needed to find David, you’d find him down there. But through the years, we would talk about him and express a lot of worry about what was going on with him. We’d try to sit down and talk to him, but we just weren’t sure how to help him.”

Bill Pope writes about David’s many homeless years:
“There were short term stays with friends, usually a night or two a week, a year with an acquaintance in Charlottesville, a month or so here and there with musicians.  He once spent the winter on the office floor at an old tobacco warehouse. For many years, he slept on a mattress in my living room, usually once a week, sometimes longer in the winter.  He rarely asked to stay with me.  I learned to read between the lines.  In the winter, he might say something like ‘I hear it’s going to be 17 degrees tonight.’   One memorable night in January 2000, a monster snowstorm bore down.  I jumped in my car searching frantically for him as the first flakes covered the windshield.  I spotted David calmly sitting on a wall near downtown. That night we feasted on spaghetti and salad and gulped down a half bottle of red wine.  He basked in a hot shower, and within minutes was snoring. The next morning we stared at a record 20 inches of snow.  He stayed a week.”

Another friend, Bill Erwin, writes, “There was a time when several of us were discussing making a monthly contribution to pay apartment rent for David.  My wife, Heidrun, and I had also discussed building a little house for him in our back yard. Neither of those ideas went very far, however. David was opposed to anything that sounded like ‘charity.’”

He did live with us for three months or so, sleeping on the couch, and was an amenable housemate for Heidrun, me and our two sons.”

And then, about 2013, a few years after David began playing at the Farmer’s Market,  something remarkable happened.  David accepted a long-standing invitation to share with a young man a two-bedroom side of a duplex only a couple of blocks from 9th Street and near the bus lines. David had held off accepting that invitation for a long while, but he turned 65 that year, and the results of aging, the lack of sleep, and his weight were taking a toll on him.  The duplex was a god-send.  It eliminated living on the street and thus ended David’s mind-boggling 20-year-long daily routine.

David in front of his duplex, Oct. 31, 2015
Photo by Bill  Pope

“Friendship is not only necessary, it is also noble”

In 2014, yet another good thing happened, thanks to friends who helped David to apply and qualify for Social Security benefits.

Even before David could consider applying, he had to have an acceptable ID, and for this he received help from his friend and niece Lorrin Freeman, who lived in nearby Wake County. She writes,
“The effort to get David his social security was a multi-phase process.   It required him getting an ID. I will tell you that getting an ID for someone who has no ID is nearly impossible.  David had been ‘off the grid’ for years.   We originally went to get a passport but it turns out you can’t get a passport without an ID.   I took a second afternoon from work to take him to DMV.   As we got closer to the office he became more and more nervous.   I was determined we were going to follow through.   As we waited in line, I tried to distract him with conversation, but his anxiety clearly was rising.   When it was our turn the DMV agent almost turned us down because we were lacking sufficient identifying documents.   It was at that moment I believe she saw the despair on my face and in a last-ditch effort asked me if he had ever had a driver’s license.   It had been more than twenty-five years I told her, but yes, he had had one.  She then pulled it up on their computer – looked at the picture which I am certain looked virtually nothing like David and at me and agreed it was certainly him.   I have always been so grateful for her compassion and assistance.   I feel certain that if we had failed that day, David, who had had to be consistently cajoled to receive some help, would have given up and never agreed to go again.”

Another friend was Sybil Huskey, David’s co-recipient of “Most Likely to Succeed” at Garinger High School in Charlotte, as well as editor of the school newspaper for which David wrote a sports column. Sybil, a dance professor, spent the entire summer of 2014 in Durham at the NC Idea Labs, in her role as a co-founder of a start-up software company, Video Collaboratory.  During that summer Sybil had numerous prolonged discussions with David about applying for Social Security benefits.  David was excited about the prospect, as he felt he had earned these benefits rather than their being charity, but he still did not apply.  Sybil writes, “I knew that the ‘Bills’ had tried in vain to facilitate David’s S.S., but David just said he would take care of it online. NOT. So knowing this, I kept nudging him during my Durham summer and finally established a breakfast date at Elmo’s diner followed by a visit to the S.S. Office. When David saw all the people, he broke into a sweat and reiterated his intent of enrolling online. I laughed and told him we would just take a number and then have lots of time to visit. Miraculously, he agreed. When his number was called, he insisted on going solo to the window. He was exuberant when he found that he would be receiving more money than he had anticipated so it was a happy day. And he got enrolled in Medicare Part A.”

Later that summer Sybil helped David fill out an application for Medicaid, which he finally had agreed to do.  But when they came to the section that asked for David’s address, David balked.   His paranoia took over:  “I don’t want my address to be out there so that God knows who knows where I live.”

This seemed an insoluble problem until Sybil had an idea.
“David, I’m your editor, right?”
“Well, yes,” David responded with a quizzical smile.
“Well since I’m your editor, you have to do what I tell you to do.  So put in your address, sign the form, and let’s get it to the office!”
Amazingly, David laughed, and signed.

When the social security checks started to arrive, Bill Pope observed, “That was the happiest I had ever seen David.”

David on 9th Street, relaxing with a glass of wine after playing a set,
Oct. 2015. 

Photo by Bill Pope

David still faced many challenges, but these good events must have made the world a bit more open and welcoming to him, like the past travel that inspired the song below.  David wrote, “I got the idea for this instrumental when I went out to Kansas to interview for a newspaper job at The Wichita Eagle.”

From the album “Changin’ My Mind,” by Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight.  Composed by David McKnight and John Wenberg.  David McKnight – Guitar, Fiddle, Piano; Bill Cleaver – Guitar; David Spencer – Mandolin, Electric Guitar; Joe Swenson –  Bass; Robert Smith – Harmonica; Bill Erchul – Pedal Steel Guitar; Time Rae – Percussion.

“For We Praise Those Who Love Their Friends”

As if to cap off this good news, in 2016 David attended the 50th reunion in Charlotte of our Garinger High Class of ’66 in Charlotte.  In the months leading up to our high school reunion in May of 2016, Sybil and I wrote David regularly, urging him to attend.  He was very enthusiastic about the prospect, and he remembered our classmates far better than I did.  Bill Yaeger offered to David to take him to the Durham train station to buy tickets and to take him to buy a new pair of slacks and a shirt, which David had identified as items he needed for the reunion. All looked good.  But at the last minute David became nervous and emailed Bill, saying that something had come up and he could not go with Bill to the train station. Nor to the store.  I wrote David, and after a few days finally he wrote back with the time of the arrival of his train in Charlotte.  We had no idea whether he would actually show up.  My lifelong friend Ike Casey went with me to the Charlotte station, and when the passengers came through the tunnel to disembark, there was David at the end of the line, with a big smile, a bag, and the folding chair he carried with him everywhere for when he needed to take a rest break from walking.

After we helped him check into the hotel, David and I spent a little time in his room.  “I’m worried about what people will think about my teeth,” he said.  “Not having much money all these years, I couldn’t go to a dentist.”

“Don’t worry about your teeth, David,” I replied.  “Everyone there is going to be fat or bald and/or just plain old, and people are just going to be glad to see you.”

And they were delighted to see him.  When we arrived at the reunion reception, David was seated in the lobby chatting with our good friend Deno Economou.  A little later he hobbled into the reception room and then afterwards the dining room, carrying his folding chair with him, set up at a table in the back of the room, and held court for three hours, telling stories, listening intently, and laughing that infectious laugh.  Dozens of people came up to talk with him.  As always, he amazed us with his knowledge of North Carolina history and politics.  “….So the candidate came to Governor Kerr Scott to ask for his help, and Scott said, ‘Well, I’ll come out publicly fer you or ag’in you, whichever will help you the most!’”

David in one of his many conversations at the 50th Reunion

 

David McKnight and Norris Frederick at the Garinger Wildcats reunion

The next morning after the reunion dinner and dance, I went to the hotel and found David seated at a breakfast table, where he again was holding court for several fellow alumni.   David and I drove around Charlotte, looking at the many changes since he had lived here 25 years earlier.  As we rode, he said he was so glad to see Charlotte again, and then he said, “You know, I am just about done with my work in the Triangle, and I am thinking about moving back here and doing some violin concerts, maybe a little music teaching at Queens if you can introduce me to some folks, perfesser!”

We stopped off at the Elizabeth Creamery and sat in the pleasantly warm sun on the quiet side street, enjoying a double-scoop waffle cone in the beautiful spring day.  “This is the life,” he said with a smile. I heartily agreed.  In fact, it was a wonderful day and weekend for me, too.  The re-connecting with David and my other high school friends, and re-connecting David with them, was so very meaningful for me.  And David now had a regular gig at the Farmer’s Market, an apartment, social security benefits, and a host of high school friends to add to his friends in Durham.  This is the life.

“And It Is Thought To Be A Fine Thing To Have Many Friends”

It seemed like the next day, but a few months later, it became obvious that something was wrong with David.  His friends in Durham noticed that David had started forgetting words and had even more trouble walking.  One day in November Bill Yaeger receive a call from David asking for help  — the first time he’d ever asked Bill for help. Calling from the Duke library, David said, “I can’t move my body.”  When Bill came to pick him up, David refused to go see a doctor.  So Bill took him home, where he seemed somewhat better.  The duplex was a mess:  simply nothing was ever thrown away, and newpaper were piled up everywhere.  Bill brought food to David for several days.

Niece Lorrin Freeman managed finally to get David to a doctor.  “The overarching theme that jumps out at me when it came to David’s last few months is similar to what happened in getting David’s ID: complete strangers exercising tremendous compassion and understanding.   It became obvious something was wrong with David.   He hadn’t sought actual medical care except for one incident in decades.   I located the free clinic in Durham where the doctor on duty immediately recognized David’s situation and listened to him exclaim about his life achievements before providing just the very first steps of medical assistance understanding that a full-blown medical physical would deter David from any follow up.   When he left he agreed to a next appointment within the week.”

But that follow-up visit never happened, for soon there was a time when no one saw David for days.  Bill Yaeger was the first one to get to David’s duplex.  He could tell David was in the bedroom, lying on the floor, with his considerable girth blocking the door.  Bill was able to get the door open, and found David and the room in terrible condition.  In addition to the usual newspapers and junk piled everywhere, David had lost control of his bowels and the room was putrid.  When the ambulance and the EMS workers arrived, David protested that they had no right to take him from his home.  Eventually they were able to get David into a chair and carried him in that chair to the ambulance.

Bill rode in the ambulance with David to try to keep him as calm as possible.  One of the EMS workers recognized David as the street musician and treated David as a celebrity, which improved David’s mood.  Another stranger showing compassion and understanding for David. At the Duke hospital, the doctors put David on an anti-psychotic drug, one of the rare times in his life he took medicine for his mental challenges.

David was diagnosed with brain cancer, which the doctors deemed inoperable.  David’s sister Carson and brother Pete met with Bill Yaeger and Bill Pope, and all agreed that it was unwise to pursue surgery, but that they would do everything they could to make David’s remaining time as good as possible.   David insisted that no one had the right to keep him in a hospital.  Carson writes, “David was furious with Lorrin and declared to all who would listen that she had ruined his life.”  Lorrin remembers, “David spent a lot of the last few weeks angry with me because I had confined him to a hospital and then a nursing home.   His preference was to be free and independent.   Despite that, he largely was gracious and happy to have the non-stop visitation he experienced.”

Friends and family rallied around him, getting him into a good extended care facility only two miles from where David had played the violin on 9th Street all those years.  He had visitors every day, including high school classmates Nancy Gaillard and Sybil Huskey, who came from miles away and stayed in town for days to be with David.  Former band member Joe Swenson flew in from California. Carson, her daughters Meg and Lorrin and their families, Pete, and other family came to spend time with David.   Even a policeman who knew David came and serenaded David with his guitar.  Lorrin and Pete worked with the doctors and nursing home to get David the best treatment.  Pete drove from Roanoke, Virginia, to Durham, and back again the same day to Roanoke, a two and one-half hour drive each way.   Friend Bill Pope visited frequently, and Bill Yaeger spent time with David almost every day.

David was delighted to see the friends and family, but he also said to them that he was not seriously ill and that he wanted to leave the hospital.  At times he would beg them to take him home with them until he could get back on his feet and be on his own again.  Carson remembers, “There were so many things I wanted to say to David at Pruitt, but my presence was his excuse just to dig in and needle me and insist that I get him out of there and bring him here to Greensboro. No other conversation was tolerated. I told him he required a team and I couldn’t provide that.”

It’s heart-breaking for friends and family to have such conversations with someone who is ill and in an institution.  There was some solace for Carson: when family took David to Elmo’s Diner on his last birthday to have dinner with some of his friends, he announced to the table his deep appreciation of his sister and her importance to him.

“ We Think It Is The Same People That Are Good People And Are Friends”

His many friends in Durham decided to pull together an event to honor David, to play his music and to let him know he was loved.  The event was set for Sunday, January 15 at the Blue Note Grill in Durham.

Musician friends Rebecca Newton and Pattie LeSueur posted an invite on the Blue Note’s website: “Pattie LeSueur and I want to have a few hours of great music for him, and Bill and Andrea graciously gave us The Blue Note Grill on Jan 15th. This may well be the last time David gets out to hear live music. We hope MANY folks will be involved in this tribute to him.

We’re busting David out of his facility for a few hours on Sunday, Jan 15th and paying a musical tribute to him as a thanks for 40+ years of music in the Triangle. Come join us!”

But three days before the scheduled event I got the news from Sybil that David was declining rapidly: “Bill Pope is with David as I write and says he has been sleeping all day, unable to sit up or feed himself. He thinks it is a matter of days. The music tribute is still on but will surely be a more somber event without David’s presence.  Just so sad.”

When Sunday came, over 200 of David’s friends showed up to celebrate David. The three-hour event was live-streamed to David’s room in the long-term care facility in hopes that he would be able to watch.  The friendship, love and joy that poured forth that night were inspiring.   Pattie LeSueur called out the love of the group to David, and then she and Jack LeSueur played a song they had sung with David when the three of them formed the group “Triangle” back in the 1970s.

Pattie and Jack Le Sueur, accompanied by Mike Foster.  Written by Carlene Carter .  Video by Bill Erwin of CelebrationVideos.com.
https://vimeo.com/200115898 

Among the highlights were Cleaver, Smith and Swenson, performing without McKnight, who provided a superb rendition of David’s “Back in Texas Again”:

L-R: Joe Swenson, Robert Duvall Smith, Dave Spencer, Bill Cleaver and Gary Siems. Written by David McKnight.  Video by Bill Erwin, CelebrationVideos.com.  Excerpted from  https://vimeo.com/199936592?ref=fb-share&1

Another song featured that night was David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz.”  David at one point said he was going to write a waltz for every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.  If this one is any indication, I sure wish we’d had the other 99.  Here is David playing the violin on the waltz, in 2011.

David’s “Mecklenburg Waltz,” from a 06/09/2011 mix

Everyone there found it such a moving and meaningful event.

The Sad Message

Just two days later, on January 17, Sybil wrote with the sad words, “Meg Whalen just called to say that David passed about an hour ago, about 9 a.m. He had no pain and was peaceful to the end. With Sunday’s tribute event, one could say that he was ushered out by the music and friends/family he loved. What better way to go.”

As has been the case for me with other before, I knew David was going to die soon, but I still felt shocked.

Words fail about moments like these.  In his life David said so much with his music, and in death he left us a song he’d authored and recorded in memory of the death of his own father, “Last Call.”  It’s exactly the right song for those of us who knew and loved David.

David McKnight, Piano, Violin, Viola; Bill Cleaver; Joe Swenson Bass.  Written by David McKnight.

Last call, with its definitive ending.  But his friends were not ready to let David go.

A Memorial

After the shock of David’s death wore off, the discussion began of a memorial to David, with lots of ideas.  Ultimately it was decided that a bench would be placed at the edge of the Durham Farmer’s Market, right where David played his music.  Brother Pete worked tirelessly to make the idea a reality.  He was instrumental in raising the money for the bench and getting it designed and fabricated and to Durham.  The tribute concert for David raised over $2,000.  Pete and Bill Yaeger and others went to the Farmer’s Market to ask people to tell their stories about David and to seek funds for the bench.  Family and friends gave gifts, and the City of Durham cooperated to make the memorial a reality.  Many people came to honor and give thanks for David.

People gathering to honor David, Aug. 5, 2017
Photo by Christopher Frederick

Bill Pope’s words written shortly after David’s death capture what was in the hearts of many at the memorial dedication:   “The past year his mobility waned.  Years ago I bought him a folding metal bar stool. This allowed him to sit down while he played.  He eventually used it as a crutch and resting chair.  He would walk 10 yards or so and have to rest.  We worried about him.  He told me in October that he had completed his work.  A month later he started forgetting words. A few weeks later he couldn’t formulate sentences.  Then the diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor.  I felt his spirit was ready to go. His work was complete. He died peacefully without pain. He spent years hoping newspapers would print his editorials.  Ironically, he finally had editorials printed.  They were about him.”

After David’s death, stories about him – tributes really – ran in Indy Week, The Charlotte Observer, The Durham Herald, and Duke Magazine.  Reading the latter tribute I realized a mistake I’d made in my first post.  David did go back and graduate from Duke, in 1974.  I don’t think he ever told me that.

The Durham Herald-Sun said it 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.”[4]

David was a neighbor to so many people in Durham, and they were neighbors to him.  It’s fitting that David and the music he composed were featured in the Durham film, “Love Your Neighbor.”

“Love Your Neighbor Durham Cares,” about ?2009 (posted Oct. 2010):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yDgn6iQzu4 

As people gathered and speakers voiced memories of David, the bench in his honor sat covered, and on the bench sat David’s violin and a picture of him playing it on this spot.  Bill Yaeger says, “I’ve been to a lot of funerals of people who were highly accomplished, who made lots of money, and who were thought worthy.  But I don’t know anyone who had a send-off, with such uniform affection as David, both at the musical tribute and then the memorial at the Farmer’s Market.  Even with his limitations, he had such a positive effect on others.  I think he had a very happy life, rather than one associated with sadness.”

Photo by Robert Duvall Smith

After some remarks, it was time to unveil the bench memorial, below, to David.  Perhaps the greatest tribute are the words: “Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend.”  Most appropriately, the last word is “friend.”

 


A Christmas Gift from David and A Friend

I have one more story to tell, about the day after Christmas, 2016.  The last time I saw David was that morning.  David was sitting on the bed side talking with his friend Bill Yaeger, and his face lit up when I came in.  He knew who I was, but he had trouble calling out my name.  “I was just telling Bill about the election results in two nearby counties where Hillary had such a big victory.  And I was saying that if the Democrats had just been able to….”  The thought that had started out clearly became impossible to follow.  The cancer was doing its horrible work on his brain.

The friend left, and I stayed on with David.  I had searched Durham high and low on this cold and overcast morning after Christmas, and I finally found a place open, where I bought coffee and doughnuts. David attacked the doughnuts with gusto as he sipped the coffee.  We talked.  I asked him how he was doing.  “I’m doing all right, just having some bad days here and there.  I’ll be getting out of here soon, so I’m working on that.”

When it came time for me to go, I said, “It’s so good to see you, Dave.  You’re a good friend and I love you.”  He seemed a little startled by my words, but he smiled and said, “Thanks so much for coming by.  You’re a good friend, too.  I will see you soon.”

I sat in my car and cried.

Later that same day after Christmas, David’s friend and long-time musical partner Bruce Emery (together they created three  CD’s)  came to visit David.  Here is Bruce’s story.

“I had brought the mandolin along on visits several times, but he declined to play, saying that while he was physically capable he couldn’t do it psychologically.  The day after Christmas, I was playing some of the guitar parts from our duets, and I hit upon ‘Ode to Joy,’ which David was always happy to sing along to, in German of course.  So I slyly asked him if he could remember those lyrics, and got him to sing along.  Then I offered him the mandolin, and he agreed to play, but only after a bathroom break, during which he later said he was getting his courage up.  After we did ‘Ode to Joy,’ a new melody just popped out of his hands, and I had glimpse of the old David, getting reacquainted with an old instrumental friend. I groped around for some chords that would work and we recorded it. He composed it on the spot and wanted to call it ‘Looking Up’ or ‘Ready for a Change’ or something hopeful like that.  He was very pleased and uplifted by the experience. We agreed that we would do that again next visit.  I left on a real high.  Of course, by the time I had returned, he had clearly gone around another bend in the road, and I didn’t even bring it up.  But for a moment there we back at the Global Village coffee shop, trading chords and licks and grins.”

Here is David playing “Ready for a Change.”

David McKnight, mandolin, and Bruce Emery, guitar.
Recorded at PruittHealth – Durham, December 26, 2016.

Final Reflections

 In my previous post I questioned whether David’s friendships met Aristotle’s idea of a complete friendship, given David’s character flaws.  I concluded that in asking for perfect virtue/excellence for those in a complete friendship, Aristotle has gone beyond what observation shows, and he has set too high a standard.  None of us are perfect in our traits.  For example, me. When David voiced ideas about moving back to Charlotte, I did not explore that further with him, not being willing to imagine what it would be like for me if David were living here.  His last email to me, on November 4, 2016, focused on his ideas about moving back to Charlotte.  I never encouraged him in that idea.  Nor did I travel enough to Durham to visit him.

Even David’s niece Lorrin, who did so very much for him, questions whether she did enough. “I loved David – and like many – wish I had done more to be with him while he was here.   As you know, being with David was not always easy.   He didn’t dwell on his misfortune, almost always demonstrating joie de vivre.  So neither shall I.”

And it was difficult to be friends on a daily basis with David.  His paranoia, his refusal to accept medical help, his fierce and sometimes seemingly irrational independence, his lack of personal hygiene, and other traits made it a challenge.  David kept putting off applying for Social Security, yet it did not seem to occur to him that friends were supplementing his busking income so he could have food and shelter.  As a house guest David paid little attention to cleanliness.  He ate an enormous amount of food, understandable since he might not know when he’d have his next meal, but he was helpless about preparing meals or cleaning up afterwards.

One friend captures well what must have been the experience of all of David’s close friends: “At times I had to pinch myself and say, ‘he’s the one who is mentally ill.’ David’s friendship meant a lot to us, and the frustrations came mostly from his unwillingness to accept help.”  Another friend said, “I miss David and at the same time, he could really drive me crazy.”

But that latter friend goes on to write, “I do miss his deep-down goodness and sweetness and humor.”  David was also warm, witty, knowledgeable, gifted, and creative.  He was generous when he could be.  Bill Yaeger writes, “When he started receiving Social Security he enjoyed hosting me for a couple of nice restaurant meals.”

When I look at friendships I’ve known and observed in my life, I feel an overwhelming admiration for both David and his friends.  When I think of the type of thing a friendship is and what it can be, I am convinced that his were complete friendships.  Who could imagine more than what David’s friends gave to him, and what David gave to his friends? David was a friend to all those people and to me.  He gave of himself joyfully, and people gave to him willingly.  While certainly they must also have felt some sense of obligation, friends who visited him in the hospital wanted to be there with David and for David.  Another statement from Aristotle rings true for me now:  “friendship is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good people and are friends.”[5]  I am inspired by those many good friends of David, by their and David’s nobility.  They are indeed friends and good people.

As Lorrin writes, “David had the most amazing friends.   My observation near the end of his life was that all these people surrounded and helped him because they genuinely loved him but also because David had been a good friend over the years – keeping up with their happenings and encouraging them along.   A personal example of this was when I was Clerk of Court in Wake County hosting the other one hundred Clerks from across the State for dinner during our annual conference.   David wrote and sent me a poem in which he worked in all one hundred counties.”

You could give David the name of any city or town in North Carolina, and David could tell you the corresponding country.

*****

I began these three posts on friendship and David McKnight by asking whether his life was a tragedy.  I wasn’t with David daily like his friends and family.  I didn’t know the daily heartbreak of dealing with his mental challenges.  I did know the young and beautiful David, and I saw his world come tumbling down, bit by bit.  When I think of what might have been for David, without his mental issues, without the cancer, his life is tragic.

But when I think of all the lives that David touched for the better, of the over 200 friends and musicians who turned out for a benefit and tribute to him near the end of his life, of all the people he enjoyed and knew were his friends, of the joy he brought to his friends, when I think of the beautiful music he played and recorded all these years, even when homeless, I think not just of tragedy but of overcoming, of triumph, of transcendence, of redemption, of a small world of people brought together by music, stories, laughter and friendship. 

And I think of someone who in many ways lived life on his own terms, despite his limitations.  We all live lives within our limitations; most of ours just aren’t as readily visible as David’s.

David, you were not only gifted, but you gave us irreplaceable gifts.  Thanks for it all, David.  I still miss you.  We all do.

Some say David isn’t totally gone.  Some say he is back in Texas again, or somewhere else, thinking about coming back to Carolina.  Listen to his voice and his violin here, and you will know that his spirit lives in his music.

“Tell ‘em back in Caroline, I’m doing swell, and feeling fine,
Tell ‘em back in Caroline, it won’t be long til I’m in those pines.”


 How to obtain David’s music

 There are several options:  YouTube, I-Tunes, Amazon music, and CD’s.  For the online sources, search for “Cleaver Smith Swenson” to pull up both the earlier album “Back Home Again” and also the later album when the group had become Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight, “Changin’ My Mind.”  I will list below specific songs by David.  You can also order these CD’s from Robert Smith, robertdsmith@mindspring.com .  Bruce Emery and David McKnight have 3 CD’s, of which the first is Christmas music and others familiar tunes: “All is Calm, All is Bright”; “Night and Day”; and “Windy and Warm.”  You can order from Bruce, bruceemery@mindspring.com.  I recommend all five of these albums.

A couple of days after our high school reunion, David sent out an energized and upbeat email to many classmates, saying how much he enjoyed the reunion.  He sent the list below as a “sampler” of the songs “I have been involved with during my breaks from journalism writing and academic research.” He closed the message with characteristic good humor:  “First the good news: That’s all the songs for this music mailer to GHS ’66. Now the bad news: There are some more on the way!”

Here is the list David provided:

1979 — Three Songs Playing Violin for Folksingers Pattie and Jack LeSueur
“Wheels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfBnriwC3ws
“Two More Bottles of Wine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xca2C8Ywaa0
“Easy From Now On” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oB4DqpdinE

2000 — Original Songs with Cleaver Smith & Swenson
“Now Our Love Is Here to Stay” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccsMmqLnChE
“Listen to Me” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGEOEl8GTpk

2006 — Five Original Instrumentals and Songs with Cleaver Smith Swenson & McKnight
“Ridin’ On Kansas” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-MMaBo21MY
“Last Call” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o17ARmJ0OT8

“Autumntime in Massachusetts”[YouTube got the title switched with another song, but this is the Autumntime song track.] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h61BVwdNlVQ
“Block and a Half” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWoLgE5fKtY
“I’m Back in Texas Again” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJdRow1tgP8


 

[1]Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, W.D. Ross translation (The Internet Classics      Archive,  http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html ), with minor changes by Frederick.
[2] Bill Pope, unpublished memories about David McKnight, 2017.[3] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, translated and notes by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014.
[4] Durham Herald-Sun, Jan. 21, 2017.
[5] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 8, chapter 1, Ross translation.

15 thoughts on “Friendship and David McKnight: Homeless, Musician, Journalist, Statesman, Friend”

  1. Well told. I too feel like I should have done more along the way and I will continue to think of and miss David. I often mention David when I talk with Bill Pope. “What would David say about this?”, etc.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Robert. And thanks so much for all your help which helped me know more about David’s story. I like knowing that you still talk with Bill Pope about David. You and Swenson and Cleaver made some simply wonderful music with David, and I know how very much that must have meant to him.

  2. Norris, your tribute to David and to friendship was beautiful and honest and It touched my heart in so many ways. The description of the feelings you had that you “never encouraged him” in his idea about moving back to Charlotte and you had not traveled “enough” to Durham to visit him brought out similar regrets I had after his death.

    Our high school class was so large that there were many people I never got to know outside the classroom. David was one of those classmates. At the reunion I found myself engaged with him in a wonderful conversation where I found him to be witty and charming and so obviously intelligent. I was totally unaware of the hard life he had lived for so much of his adult life. Soon after the Reunion, I was one of the recipients of the email you mention that he had sent out to some classmates thanking us for the “refreshment and healing” he felt having been in our collective “enchanting and rejuvenating company once again”. I remember reading his email and thinking that if he did move back to Charlotte it would be nice to forge a new friendship with him. When I saw the emails and Facebook posts about his terminal brain cancer and his rapid decline and death, I felt regret that I had not done more to be one of David’s close friends you described, particularly in his last few months. After reading your tribute to him, I realize even more how much I lost by not doing more to get to know him.

    Kris Kristofferson in his song Me and Bobby McGee wrote “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” and if that is true, David might have lived with more freedom than any of his friends. While that might help soothe some of the sadness of his life and death, it does not ease the pangs of regret that comes with lost opportunities. May we all make an extra effort to be a friend when we feel those urges to do so.

    1. Rebecca, I am so glad that my writing on David touched your heart. He touched mine, too, so much so that it took me getting a year away from his death before I could write this.

      Your writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. I loved hearing that at the reunion you found yourself “in a wonderful conversation where I found him to be witty and charming and so obviously intelligent.” And it’s wonderful that you had no idea about his hard life — he wanted so much for his classmates not to judge him for that.

      And thanks for summing up the lesson for many of us — to make extra efforts for our friends.

  3. This is a beautiful post, Dr. Frederick. It’s a meaningful tribute to your friend and, more universally, a lesson on friendship. I think the writings in this series have been my favorite of your blog entries, and this particular installment in the series has been my favorite of the several pieces. I laughed when David quoted Gov. Kerr Scott, and cried a few paragraphs later when David was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After reading your three-part series, I feel like I knew him myself. This line stayed with me: “We all live lives within our limitations; most of ours just aren’t as readily visible as David’s.”

    1. Thanks so much for your insightful email about this post, Hope. I really like your “I laughed” and “I cried” sentence, as it mirrored much of what I thought about my time with David. I’m glad to know you liked this series the best, and of those that your favorite was the most recent post.

      I like the line you quoted. too: I was thinking of the issue of freedom and determinism off and on while writing this piece, and that line is related, of course.

  4. Reading Norris’s last episode about David, these were my thoughts.

    I was touched by the exploration of both poverty and friendship. Here was a man who was steeped in poverty and the mental illness that force many people into poverty, yet is surrounded by friends who enjoy his company. Where does that put him in life, society, evolution, philosophical endeavors? It puts me more in touch with myself – my True Self.

    The music is who David really is. Is it who we all are, maybe we just have not found it. I remember what a talented musician David was and how much it meant to him. Where does Music fit into our search for True Self and Happiness? Just listen to David’s licks on the pieces here and you will understand David.

    It was a pleasure to read this and remember all the old friends that David and I shared, some whom we have since lost, Nancy Gilliard is the biggest loss to me in the group mentioned here. We will all be going away in the next few years. That is life. Norris is the best friend a man or woman could have. His writing will keep David and David’s music alive for years to come. Thanks to a great friend. Let’s all stay close and keep David in our memories. Norris will be the touchstone.

    1. Ike,
      Your insightful comments mean a great deal to me, and they have provoked all sorts of thoughts in my mind about our true self,music, and all of our old friends, whom as you mention some we have lost. For me, too, Nancy is the biggest loss of those friends. I will disagree with you on only one thing: YOU are the greatest friend anyone could have.
      Norris

  5. What an amazing and heartbreaking story. So much talent and it feels as if the world was cheated out of the young man that took Garinger by storm. But the gifts that he left and the people that he touched and loved are a legacy we could all strive to obtain. Norris, you have beautifully captured David’s life and have rendered a tribute which touches all who read it. You have kept David alive.

    1. Cynthia, thanks so much for your comments and insights. His friendships are indeed “a legacy we could all strive to obtain.”
      Norris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *