John Kilroy has passed away and, as he often declared, “it’s just one of them deals.”
My dad picked up the ancient raceway proverb from Smokey Yunick and used it until, quite literally, the day he died. In fact, the afternoon before he left us, my dad answered some of my lingering questions about his poems, the first one being “Essay: Reverse Rotation Engine.” The poem reads like a bar story that’d floor you, recounting how Smokey Yunick and Stan Fox went for a wild idea that worked, and my dad related it to everything from the rebellious politics of Irish history to the shoulder weight of fatherhood.
My dad was like that, always wondering, musing, and connecting dots. He had a mind that seemed endless to me. You could name a noun and he had pondered its depths at some point. He just had a thoughtful curiosity that seemed almost superhuman. I sought his counsel often, picked his brain relentlessly, and really just delighted in his unpacking of the world — and I very much wasn’t the only one.
At my first desk job, as an editorial assistant at a business magazine, I wrote up profiles about entrepreneurs. One of my first assignments turned out to be Ricky Dennis, founder of Arena Racing USA. We had barely swapped introductions when he asked if there was any relation to John Kilroy. I said yes and expected a brief explanation of how they knew each other and instead got a little rave review of my dad.
This was not uncommon. People regularly gave me little rave reviews of my dad — even childhood friends, back when we were kids. My dad was just a social, adaptable guy who didn’t believe in pretense and was able to meet anyone on their level. You could drop him anywhere and he’d strike up a conversation that led with him earnestly asking questions. He was interested in people, whether they were a lifelong friend or a shy acquaintance. Whether tyke, teen, or tycoon, he approached them with the same curious and cheerful spirit. He rooted for others regularly, complimented them directly, and shared himself openly, hoping others would do the same.
He was vibrant, funny, wise, honest, grounded, pensive, insightful, and kind, but he didn’t take sh**. He let his mind wander and spoke of shaman culture, but he approached everything with logic, reason, and a yellow pad of paper. He worked hard and then some in everything he did, but he knew how to unwind, stay level, and bring mirth to any situation. He was an orator to behold, from trade show closer to wedding toast to PTA discussion, knowing how to command attention without demanding it. At every opportunity, he looked for the joke, the cheer, the comfort, or the adventure.
The man was all balance, wholesome enough to suggest my teenage punk band be called Lost Dog Reward, given all the “free advertising” around town, yet tough enough to sleep beneath the living room window with a baseball bat to fight The Night Stalker.
As a younger man, he surfed, backpacked, and once called my mom from a San Francisco payphone after seeing Devo before they blew up because he was so hyped. He was just stoked to be alive. His occasional morning mantra in the mirror was, “You good-lookin’ son of a bitch, don’t you never die.”
He took us to car races, loved to travel, considered forests his church, practiced French each morning, watched westerns and basketball, learned magic tricks, rented old movies, adored good food and drink, and self-published three of my favorite poetry books — Torque, Proof of Flight, and Point B. The man was one hell of a writer, and I made him autograph my copies. In them reads a note that closes, “We sail on will alone,” an apt summary of the good sir’s core.
The man loved what he did for a living. He was an editor with an office near the beach and his focus was racing. It was a golden trifecta of who, where, and what. At home, he’d recount good times with coworkers, good times with racers, good times with mechanics, good times with industry insiders, good times as simply a racing fan in the bleachers with beer. For most of his career, he felt like a fun uncle.
He evolved too, getting into gourmet cooking and running in his 50s. In fact, he started running each morning before dawn to ensure he’d be at the top of his game when he went from being PRI’s editor to its vice president/general manager. Over time, he came to love the clarity and drive that running gave him, as he bested his times for 5ks and 10ks, once with a feeding tube in him. To be honest, when he was diagnosed with cancer, he was arguably the healthiest he’d ever been.
He was a family man to his core, married to the love of his life, with whom he constructed a familial foundation of humor and communication. He referred to his three children as “the young people,” so we knew we had a stake in the household and it wasn’t just some two-level hierarchy of parents and kids. He asked for input and explained his rationale, always nurturing our better selves and forever fascinated by us and our lives.
His big life philosophy was “Profound Fun,” advocating for everyone to be as purposefully joyous as possible, to seek out a goofball good time where and when you could to keep your grin running. For him, this ranged from turning Christmas shopping with my mom into day-long treat-yourself outings to waking up one New Year’s Day and making a sci-fi b-movie with his young family called Not In My Town, Alien.
When I tagged along on his annual business trip to London, he took me to his favorite restaurants, pubs, and theaters — an ideal showcase of him as someone who knew how to find fun and joy on a solo jaunt and yet as someone who always sought to share it.
After he retired from PRI and joined his longtime friends to launch EPARTRADE, he spent a year discovering simple pleasures at a seemingly granular level, reaching a new level of spirit for the little things, once stumbling upon a local gelato shop and recounting his time there with an enthusiasm that almost suggested he went to Italy instead of the nearby downtown.
The year soon followed with a cancer diagnosis that proved as ferocious as a grizzly, one that he fought intensely for years. This was so much the case that, four years into the battle, he came home from the hospital on hospice and still told us he wasn’t about to give up.
Despite cancer’s claws, he exited as properly as any man could. He took a long shower, fed himself a bowl of ice cream, and turned in for an afternoon nap. He passed away shortly after, with his family surrounding him and holding his hands.
He often referred to his cancer as the streak of bad luck he traded in for a lifetime of good luck. So it goes. We sail on will alone.
— Jake Kilroy