Why I write

Some do it for fame.

Others for money.

But this here is


Harry Kennison called me. I was on the phone when Harry’s call clicked in. I didn’t recognize the number. No reason I should have. Harry’s never called me before. He said his name twice, then added, “I’m Kyle’s dad.”

Kyle Kennison was my daughter’s teacher at Hermiston High. He looked like a Marine, with his broad shoulders, buzz hair cut, square jaw and high forehead. He had arms so strong he could crush fenders with ease, like teen boys do coke cans.

Konnie loved Kyle to pieces. He thought pretty highly of her too. When he and Dawn needed a babysitter for young Shay, they called Konnie. Took her to Portland with them. Got her to join Key Club. Got her to run Key Club. Kyle Kennison could persuade a Jehovah Witness to buy a Santa suit. That’s how charming he was. That smile of his, well, honey, it could melt the stretch out of Lycra.

When Kyle died, Konnie cried for days. If Hermiston had a wailing wall, people would be visiting there still, weeping for Kyle. Instead there’s a spiffy asphalt track, dedicated to Coach Kennison. I see his image etched in stone every time I attend a track meet or football game. It’s a pretty good resemblance, but only for those who didn’t really know him. For those of us who did, Coach Kennison will never be one-dimensional. He was too big of a guy for that.

His daddy recalled teaching Kyle to pull the green chain.

“It was the hardest job in the mill,” Harry said. “That’s the one Kyle wanted.” Far as I can tell it means yanking lumber, about 100,000 feet of lumber during an 8-hour shift. Takes only 12,000 feet to build your average house, Harry explained. Kyle was jerking a lot of homes through that sawmill.  That’s how he got those ripped shoulders of his.

Harry managed mills in Wallowa County, Baker City, and out at Pilot Rock. Kyle was born in Wallowa County. He got his education at the University of Idaho. “He loved that school,” Harry said, laughing. “I used to mess with him. Kyle had been a Vandals fan till he went off to the University at Idaho. I’d ask him what about those Vandals? And he’d say it was the Vandal-factor.”

Harry laughs a lot when he talks of Kyle. Said Kyle was born during a difficult time for him and his wife. They’d lost a baby girl. A 15-month old to cancer. Everybody told them to have another baby. They were young. A new baby would help heal their brokenness, the doctors said.

“Kyle held a special place in our hearts because of that,” Harry explained. “He saved us.”

I suppose it’s fitting. Superheroes ought to be able to swoop in and save their parents. His daddy was always grateful that Kyle saved him from the despair over losing that baby daughter of his.

“She loved to go to the grocery store with me,” he said. “I knew something was bad wrong when she didn’t feel like going anymore.”

They think the cancer that took her was the result of an x-ray taken while her mama was pregnant.

“You ought not to have done that,” a doctor admonished Kyle’s mama. Nobody had warned her not to. Besides another doctor had ordered it, how is a person supposed to know?

Years later, when Kyle fell ill, Harry left nothing to chance. He read all the research about stem cell transplants. Kyle took so much after his mama, Harry thought she ought to be the donor. But they never tested Kyle’s mama. And they never found a perfect match, either. Eleven out of 12 host matches was the best they could do. He sat at his bedside, watching for rejection. Thought he’d seen early signs of it, too.

But when Harry told the nurse, she dismissed his concerns. “We don’t see any signs of rejection, Harry,” she said. “Okay,” he replied. Still, he worried, and watched. When Kyle was discharged, Harry didn’t have a good feeling about it. Kyle and Dawn stayed in Portland, with her family. Harry would call up there everyday, checking on his boy. He could tell something wasn’t right. When Dawn got Kyle back to the hospital, he collapsed on the emergency room floor.

Test confirmed what Harry had been suspecting there was a problem with the host cells. They weren’t being all that accommodating. Doctors pumped Kyle with drugs. Turned him out again. Sent him off, to heal. Only he didn’t, couldn’t. His cells were waging war on each other. Civil unrest set into to Kyle’s innards. His kidneys shut down. He was dying.

How does a big man wither so? How do arms that could yank 100,000 feet of lumber in eight hours grow too frail to turn the tissue-weight pages of a Bible? How does a young man ask his aged daddy, ‘Where should they bury me?’”

Kyle did. Asked his daddy that. He told him Hermiston, son. That’s been your home these past 25 years. Years Coach Kennison spent cheering on the Bulldogs. Shay misses her daddy still. She always will. She writes letters to him sometimes. Goes out the graveyard and reads them out loud to him.

Harry said no matter how many years slip by, his son’s death “Seems like yesterday.”

He called to thank me.

“We keep that article you wrote about Kyle in the scrapbook. We read it all the time. It’s beautiful. I meant to call you then and tell you how much Kyle’s mother and I appreciate it. It means so much to us. It’s really beautiful.”

The next time someone asks me why I write, I’m going to tell them I write for men like Harry Kennison.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? ’cause I need more room for my plasma TV.

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  • Everything you write has passion behind it. Love that.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      As an editor once advised me: Your weakness is your strength cranked up a notch too high. So while the passion is my strength, it is also my flaw.

  • I, for one, am sure thankful you write too….

  • kim

    I think of you as a journalist because you get the truth, at least the part that’s obscure or hidden or doesn’t sell “papers” out. But, you are a writer, because you somehow blend your soul with those of the people you write about. The hurt and angst and waste of good things forgotten or gone bad comes through and breaks our hearts while informing our minds. I’m not sure there are many of you out there who report with love and out of love. Thanks for the example.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Mmm… Kim… never really made that observation about the diff between the journalist and the writer in me. I know there are different techniques I use depending upon whether I’m telling a story or editorializing. And times when I revert to my southern upbringing voice and times when I avoid it, purposely. But, yes, I think I’m compelled to write out of a love — for the written word and a love & concern for others. If I could do any other job besides this, I’d want to make those fancy cupcakes for everyone to ooohh and ahhh over.

      • Gloria

        WOW! This was amazing and wonderful. Thanks for writing! I loved Kim’s words – “you somehow blend your soul wth those of the people you write about”. Exactly!

  • Oh, Karen, this is so sad, yet beautiful. I’ve gotten calls like that, or thank you cards. I’m right there with you on this subject. I sure don’t do it for the money or fame. Thanks for posting this today and sharing your gifts from God!

  • Cathy

    I’m really grateful for your gift to be able to tell the story. The lord gives everyone gifts, sometimes we aren’t sure what our gift is… But your gift (& hard work) SHINE!!
    Thank you being able to tell all the stories to us..

  • Larry S

    Very good – and a sterling reason to pick up the pen.

  • Miss Karen, you not only have amazing writing skills and a keenly sharp mind, but eyes that see clean through to the heart. This story is sad and so many paths in it have crossed our own… we are Vandals, my husband’s company runs now that mill in Pilot Rock, and I pulled green chain one summer.

    I think it’s miss Kathy up in yonder first comment position who has blogged about writers who tell stories in such a way that they leave room for readers to fuse their story into the tale too… You do this, both right here and in your books. (and sorry Kathy, I couldn’t seem to spit the words out quite right)


  • John in PDX

    Thanks for writing.
    This added so I don’t get thrown out for brevity.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias


  • Steve T

    What an incredible gift to those who have felt such deep pain. You write, I think, because God bubbles up within you the capacity to hold the horror and the hope, and in that liminal space, to point to a bit of resurrection so that the rest of us might see it as well.