The quiet death of a
civil-rights pioneer. Last week one of the most significant
civil-rights figures of the past 40 years died. Yet you didn't see
his obituary in national papers such as the New York Times,
the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times -- or
even in the big dailies in his home state of Texas.
The person in question was Lee
Kitchens, who died on May 12 at the age of 73 near his home in Ransom
City, Texas. One would think his passing would have warranted some
media attention for his professional accomplishments alone: a
longtime engineer for Texas Instruments, he was involved in
everything from the development of the first transistor, to the first
handheld calculator, to TI's belated entry into the personal-computer
market. He also headed up TI's operations in Europe and East Asia at
various times before spending his last pre-retirement years teaching
at Texas Tech.
Kitchens's claim to wider fame,
though, came from his role as a founding father of Little
People of America, the
largest organization in the world for dwarfs and their families. LPA
was founded in 1957 by the late actor Billy Barty; but Kitchens was
at the group's second meeting, in 1960, and was one of LPA's most
involved members right up until his unexpected death. A former
national president, he was vice-president of membership when he
It was rare to see a documentary or
read an article on dwarfism without coming across Kitchens, who was
endlessly helpful with everyone who sought him out -- journalists,
new parents, whoever. I had the privilege of spending a couple of
hours with him last Fourth of July week in Salt Lake City at the LPA
national conference, interviewing him for my book on the culture of
dwarfism, Little People: Learning To See the World Through My
Daughter's Eyes, which will be published this fall by
A laconic pipe-smoker who reminded
me of my late uncle, also a native Texan, Kitchens cheerfully held
forth while seated on the scooter he used to get around. Kitchens,
who was exactly four feet tall, had a type of dwarfism known as SED.
Despite his considerable accomplishments, he'd led a sad life in many
respects: his wife and their adopted son and daughter had all died.
"Past history," he told me, with characteristic Texas
If Billy Barty's life as an
entertainer symbolized LPA in the minds of the public, Kitchens's
life as a respected professional symbolized the organization in the
minds of its members. Even though Barty and Kitchens were born not
that many years apart, it was as though they were of two generations.
Barty was widely credited for having the vision to found LPA; but it
was Kitchens whom everyone -- figuratively -- looked up
Kitchens served on a number of
disability commissions, both in Texas and nationally, and gradually
came to see the utility of working with other disability groups in
order to advance a broader agenda. It was also his advice that led
us, after some years of reluctance, to get a handicapped parking
placard so that our daughter, Rebecca, could cut down on her walking.
Walking is good exercise, of course; but for a dwarf, moderation is
the key lest it begin to take a toll on the back. Better a placard
now, Kitchens warned me, than a scooter when she's 30 or
The last time I saw Kitchens was in
the fall, when he visited the LPA regional conference at the Sheraton
Ferncroft in Danvers, site of this coming July's national conference.
It was something of a shakedown cruise, and Kitchens was there so
that he could report back to the national officers on how things were
progressing. He took a few pictures of Becky as she waited to play
boccia (never did see them, unfortunately), and later showed off his
digital camera to our son, Tim.
So far, the only paper that has run
an obit on Kitchens is the hometown Lubbock
As for all you other editors out
there: you missed a big story, but it's not too late.