Monday, hundreds gathered at the Whitney Center for the Arts at Sheridan College to remember and honor Tom Kinnison, who died July 1. The location — the house that Tom built — fit the occasion perfectly.
Pastor Tony Foreman led the services, punctuated by stories from Kinnison’s grandchildren, full of handshake lessons and gingerbread house decorating around the holidays.
In addition, three of Kinnison’s friends shared stories of the late businessman, legislator and friend. Each story showed a different side of a man who has been deemed private, complex and demanding.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, shared stories of Kinnison in the Wyoming Legislature. Kinskey described his own efforts to unravel the mystery of Kinnison. Kinskey compared Kinnison to Winston Churchill’s description of Russia — a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.
But Kinskey also spoke to Kinnison’s strategic mind. Kinnison approached community projects like a 3-D chess board. You had to think of different tasks on different levels. You also had to know which pieces to move when and to where. Kinnison won many games of 3-D chess in his lifetime, all to Sheridan County’s benefit.
Tony Wendtland described another aspect of Kinnison’s character. Wendtland recalled morning coffees and mysterious phone calls Kinnison would take while in local cafes. It turns out, Wendtland would learn, that Kinnison was fielding calls to help people — immigrants new to the country and the community and anyone with an addiction problem. He’d also move mountains to help with projects that would benefit children.
Wendtland said Kinnison would help out of his own pocket and with his own time. He did so humbly and despite sometimes being disappointed.
Finally, Jen Crouse spoke of Kinnison’s final months. Crouse had worked with Kinnison on a number of projects to benefit the college. But rather than focus on those efforts, Crouse discussed conversations about prayer she had with Kinnison. While others described Kinnison as tough, determined and sometimes intimidating, Crouse painted a picture of a man sharply aware of his own humanity, humble, frightened and infinitely grateful for the support of those around him.
Crouse joked that Kinnison was probably in heaven advocating with God to make it a better place for the rest of us.
The concert hall, and the hallways, were full of people who knew Kinnison. He had served as a mentor to many and had a lot of faith in the upcoming youth in the community.
I didn’t know Kinnison that well. I knew him as a public figure — one with a mean bark, a sharp wit and a determination to leave his community a better place than he found it. I often ran into him at coffee shops. I saw him just a couple months after his initial diagnosis. He had lost weight and seemed fragile. He became teary and overwhelmed when I told him how great it was to see him out and about — life as usual. He hugged me — a first for me — and expressed gratitude and surprise at the outpouring of support he had received from the community.
It was no surprise to me — neither was the number of people who turned up Monday to honor him. Sheridan County lost a champion July 1. Now, in Kinnison’s honor, we must champion each other.