One on One: Without a splash

Published 3:45 pm Monday, May 22, 2023

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By D.G. Martin

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Bible says that there is a time for everything in our lives, including a time for death. And, as we approach that time for death, we think of how to say goodbye and we begin, some of us, to write our obituaries or to have others know the accomplishments that we would like to have others remember.

We want to give the preacher at our funeral something to talk about and our family something to remember.

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Last week I lost a friend who had spent a lifetime looking out for her many friends and for good causes that she adopted. She certainly had the material for a glowing obituary and for a long eulogy in a church full of friends.

But this was not to be. There was no obituary, no church services, no large gathering of friends and admirers. There were no opportunities for her friends to reminisce and exchange memories.

Instead, her children, their spouses, their children, and a few other family members gathered in the church’s cemetery, where they dug a six-foot deep hole into which the coffin was lowered. Then the family covered the coffin with dirt and sang some of her favorite songs. They talked about their memories.

It wasn’t much, you might say. But for them it was everything. Their mother and grandmother wanted to leave, as someone later explained, like a championship diver entering the water without even a tiny splash.

No splash.

Betty Price Kenan died on May 3. Those who knew her and her activities knew that she was an institution in Chapel Hill and in the state. She married into the Kenan family, whose name is found on buildings, scholarships, professorships, institutes, football stadiums and centers at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, North Carolina State and the North Carolina School of the Arts, and on professorships and institutions throughout the country. Her own name, over her objection, adorns a performance facility that is a part of the Playmakers Repertory Company.

Her friends and others remembered her quiet help that came to them unheralded and without condition. Jeweler William Travis is forever grateful to her for finding a location for his business when he was working in his garage. Travis’s jewelry shop and Betty Kenan’s women’s clothing store, Fine Feathers, were working neighbors in Chapel Hill for many years.

Any child in distress or need became a personal project. She supported many UNC causes, was the longtime chair of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke, and contributed to an array of other causes, from the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham to the Interfaith Council for Social Services in Carrboro/Chapel Hill.

She loved to sing, especially mountain songs, and knew every word of countless Broadway tunes. She had a magic ring, a gift from her great love Frank Kenan, that, when rubbed, ensured a Tar Heel victory.

In life, she made a big splash.

In death, she wanted none.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.