I remember the first time I met Ken Stiefel. It was my first week of high school in 2008, I was 13 years old. I was still adjusting to being in high school. They had said in the morning announcements that the signups for something called “TV Crew” was in the back of the library during lunch. I thought that sounded interesting, I figured I’d go and sign up to see what it was all about. I went to the library, and after asking a few people, I found what I was looking for, a door in the very back of the library labeled “TV Studio”. I went in to find two men, one older and one younger. The older man had a big smile on his face and was wearing jeans, suspenders, and a flannel. This was Ken, I didn’t know it at the time but the two men I had just met and the club I had just signed up for would be a defining factor in my high school career and the man I am today.
Ken, Joe, myself, and a bunch of the rest of the crew during our senior year
Last week was filled with memories at every turn for me. Last Wednesday, Joe Voorhees, Jeff Stiefel, myself, and many other students, alumni, friends and family, attended a Board of Education meeting. The reason we were all there was to petition the Board to change the name of Davis Hall (The Governor Livingston Theater) in order to honor Ken and his contributions to the theater program. On Friday I was back working in the theater for a Dance Show, which Ken used to work with us, and his presence is sorely missed. Saturday morning I was up at 6 am to go back to the theater for another dance show, and I was greeted with a notification on my phones saying It’s Ken Stiefel’s birthday! Wish him a happy birthday. After the dance show on Saturday was the Berkeley Heights Relay for Life. Two years ago after Ken was first diagnosed I helped organize and fundraise for a relay team in Ken’s honor, called Daddy’s Crew. Two years later the current students continued that team.
Ken, or Daddy as we called him, has undoubtedly been one of the largest influences on my life to date. He was the most stubbornly optimistic person I’ve ever met. If you listened to him during one of the many crises in the theater, everything was going to be fine, even if he had to make a square peg fit in a round hole to make it fine. He was the kind of person who knew something about everything. I remember countless brainstorming sessions and experiments trying to make all manner of things do something they weren’t quite designed to do.
I remember while working on sets for the shows the little bits of life advice he sprinkled into work. During my junior year, I was dating another member of the crew. I was 16. In the way that things do when you’re 16, it seemed like this relationship was the most important thing in the history of mankind. When we broke up, once again, it seemed like a tragedy that would echo through the ages. High School relationships can be funny that way. Ken’s favorite quip while we were dating was some variation of : “You know, you’re a lucky guy, she’s too good for you. Just remember, whenever you get in a fight, she’s right. When she asks for something, give it to her, but that’s not going to be enough alone, you’ve got to surprise her, show her why you deserve her”. He would lovingly refer to his wife as “she who must be obeyed”. After we broke up, I took it very poorly, and making some highly questionable decisions, Ken’s response in classic form was “Well that was a pretty stupid thing to do, but at least you learned something, bet you won’t do that again.” Over the years Ken gave me more advice on school, relationships, and life than I can even remember at this point. He was the kind of person who you could go to with any sort of problem, personal, professional, technical, and he would find a solution.
There was a running joke among GLTV Crew and GL Theater, that Ken who was old enough to be Joe Voorhees’ (the TV Teacher’s) father, and old enough to be my grandfather, wasn’t allowed to leave GL until Joe had retired as a teacher. One of them being separated from the other was inconceivable to us. My fellow students and I used to joke that after we had finished with college and all had lives, we would come back to GL to visit. We would find that the administration had canceled the TV and Theater programs. But us being the few, the proud, the Crew, would obviously have to go investigate what had come of the TV Studio. So we would find some way to break in, and we would find it dark and covered in dust, but otherwise exactly how we left it. To our surprise, we would also find that Ken and Joe hadn’t left at all, and had been stowing away in the abandoned studio for years. We would find them exactly how we left them, constantly re-writing, and building all sorts of things that shouldn’t work but did. We thought that Ken and Joe, running the TV Studio and Theater, would just go on forever.
When Ken was diagnosed with cancer, it came as a shock, at least to me. This man who had become such a big part of my life, built a theater and a TV Studio, this wise man, father, husband, and friend, had cancer. But Ken didn’t let it slow him down. He was still in the theater every day doing what he always had. He would go to his treatments and then come right to the theater. He would insist we not worry about him and just let him be. For the two years after he was diagnosed, Ken was still the man I had always known and kept doing what he loved.
After Ken passed, there was a memorial service held at the GL Theater. I along with most of the other GL Theater Alumni, stood up by the booth, where we were most comfortable. Most of us rarely if ever sat in the seats in the theater, we were always in the booth, the TV Studio, or backstage. In the Stage Manager’s seat, where Ken would sit we put a coffee, milk, no sugar (because he’s already sweet enough), and a spotlight, in his honor. The memorial service was surreal. Hundreds of people turned out, from all walks of life, and not just theater alumni or GL Students, Ken’s extended family, members of a model train club he was active in, members of his church, friends of his from far back. I was amazed by just how many people Ken had touched during his life. He was always a humble man, of modest means, but had influenced the lives of hundreds of people who all came out to honor him. It was for me, a watershed moment in how I looked at what a successful life is. Ken hadn’t “made it big”, he wasn’t a wildly successful businessman, he was someone who I’ve never seen not wearing flannel and suspenders, and drove a Minivan with a ladder strapped to the roof everywhere. But he had during his life, been a positive, formative influence in the lives of so many others, a had a loving family, and a strong network of people who came out to support him.
I remember the last time I saw Ken. It was October 2015, I was 19 years old. After getting a call saying that Ken was in the hospital, I drove to Overlook Medical Center straight from school. I let myself in the Emergency Department entrance and went down to the Oncology Floor. I went to Ken’s room, and there he was, hooked up to all the machines, for the first time, he looked like a terminal cancer patient. I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing. I’m an EMT, and at work, I work with cancer patients and the chronically ill regularly, I know what this looks like, I know what the equipment does. But none of that experience could have prepared me for seeing one of the most stubbornly independent men I’ve ever known, dying in a hospital bed. I remember sitting on the floor next up against the nurse’s station trying to pull myself together. I had known conceptually what was happening and what this was going to look like, but seeing it was different. The drive back to school was long and quiet.
This is not how Ken would have wanted to be remembered. Those last days at the end never defined him, and he would have wanted to be remembered as the man he was. I remember the last time I saw Ken. It was September 2015, I was 19 years old. Joe had sent out an email asking if any alumni could come out to a football game the TV Crew was shooting. Joe couldn’t be there, and Ken was going to be running it by himself. Ken being Ken was going to try to do the whole thing himself instead of just sitting back and supervising the rest of the crew. I had a free Saturday, so I drove out. I stopped to pick up coffee, medium black for me and medium with milk for Ken, and I drove to the high school. I was supervising the supervisor if you will, doing the heavy lifting so he didn’t try too. We ended up sitting on the bumper of the bus and bullshitting for most of the day. We talked about my experiences at school, new plans for the Theater, the TV Studio, my ex-girlfriend from high school, everything. Everything except his cancer, which is the one thing he never had any interest in talking about.
To say that a man like Ken “lost his battle with cancer” is a fallacy. Ken never lost his battle, he won. He never let his disease define him, he flatly refused to step back from the theater or TV Crew, despite our urgings he wouldn’t slow down at all if he could help it. I remember working a dance show in 2014, and there was a light on stage with a blown lamp. Ken, grabbed a ladder and climbed up to change it himself before I could stop him or offer to do it myself. Joe called down on the radio asking, “Why is Ken climbing a ladder?” But he was going to do it, no matter how much everyone insisted that we have the young expendable one (me), do it. Ken lived the way he wanted to all the way to the end, and he left behind a legacy that will live on in the heart and minds of generations of students, family, and friends. If that’s losing, I don’t know what winning looks like. I am proud to have been able to count Ken among one of my friends.
Ken saying goodbye to our old bus which we used as a remote truck