Kent Bids Farewell to 'Tragic Hero' Who Overcame Labels
Public memorial service for artist Robert Wood attracts nearly 200 people.
Nearly 200 people – from the very young to the very old, from hippies to the clean-cut – gathered Saturday to celebrate the life of Robert Wood, a man referred to as a scholarly artist and philosopher whose appearance and unusual public behaviors led strangers to label him as crazy.
The public memorial service was hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent in conjunction with the Haymaker Farmers’ Market “community” – both of which were important to Wood, 68, who died Feb. 5.
Among the attendees were Wood’s brother, Dr. Gary Wood, and his wife, Carolyn, of Maryland. The couple said after the service they were glad they stayed in Ohio an extra day to see how much the community cared for Wood.
The Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer led the hour-long service that included seven speakers sharing stories about Wood’s artistic talent, his searching intellect, “his passion for philosophy, his quest to understand life and the life of the mind expressed in his art and also through intense conversation,” she said.
References to Wood’s unusual public behaviors – including flipping off passing motorists from various intersections in town, for which he developed a cult following of sorts – drew chuckles of acknowledgement from attendees.
Christie Anderson, manager of Kent Social Services, where Wood ate nearly every weekday, said she found herself reflecting on the reason Wood’s death touched so many in Kent.
Anderson said she believes Wood appealed to “many in the community because he intrigued us by defying our expectations … Perhaps part of the intrigue is that Robert was a man of contradictions. His gruff, somewhat wild-looking exterior belied a brilliant man who loved to talk.”
She noted that Kent has other “unconventional” residents who “certainly don’t have a following like Robert did,” as he was “surrounded by such a mystique.”
Wood’s contradictions, Anderson said, “Confounded our expectations that people should be predictable … Robert’s complexity and unpredictability challenged our pre-conceived notions.”
Anderson said Wood was “fascinating, opinionated, sometimes utterly annoying and deeply engaged in the world around him … He delighted us when we discovered his zest for knowledge and life. And, at the heart of Robert’s essence, he was likable.”
Wood attracted attention at the many public events he frequented over the years because he was a “highly visible, curious-looking individual.”
“Yet despite being a constant presence in Kent, Robert didn’t deliberately draw attention to himself. And this is where I think Robert stands apart from other colorful characters in our community. He didn’t strive to be different due to ego or rebellion. He was simply an unassuming man living an authentic life,” Anderson said.
Scott Budzar, 10-year minister of the now-closed Vineyard Church, said Wood spent every Sunday evening at the church working on his art from a paint-splattered couch referred to as Wood’s “sacred space.”
Budzar wrote a letter to his friend Wood after his death, saying, “You made uncomfortable beautiful … You knew that so many people labeled you, and it never derailed you from living life according to your penchants.”
Fritz Siefeldt, founder of Haymaker Farmers’ Market, where Wood was the “most favored artist” for about 15 years, said Wood’s focus was never on selling his own art, but on promoting art in general.
“Over the years I watched the vendors’ attitudes toward Robert evolve from skepticism to that of quiet acceptance and support for the presence of this intelligent and kind human being,” Siefeldt said.
The market, he said, plays a role in the community as a gathering place for ideas and to “celebrate the diversity of Kent and Bob was a part of that cultural diversity.”
Lee Brooker, referred to his friend of 25 years as “a Renaissance man” whose vast knowledge of classical music, art and international films fascinated him and broadened his horizons.
Wood’s longtime friend Bob Batian drew a huge laugh when he told the story of hearing that anyone who has lived in Kent at least 15 years is considered a “townie.”
Batian ran into Wood – who had moved to Kent in the early 1960s – and asked if he considered himself a townie. “He looked at me, cocked his head and said, ‘Hell no, I’m a tourist,’” Batian said.
“How Bob was accepted or not accepted, how Bob moved through this town, how Bob echoed through this town, is the soul of this town. And I thank you, Bob, for making my Kent what it is,” he said.
Batian also publicly thanked Wood for “his endurance, for his endless struggle … for his never giving up.”
He referred to him as “an intellectual pit bull” and a “tragic hero, fighting without the slightest hope of winning.”
“Bob’s life was not sad. Difficult, but not sad,” Batian said. “Bob overcame a lot in his life, and much of it was through his own doing, but so much of it was the symbiotic effect between Bob and Kent ... With us, with Kent, Bob became more, we became more, Kent became more.”