Thursday, May 22, 2003

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 died.

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 Rodale.

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 stoicism.

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 to.

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 40.

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 Avalanche-Journal.

As for all you other editors out there: you missed a big story, but it's not too late.

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