This article appeared originally in The Manhattan Times, September 9, 2004, and was reprinted in the WaHi Times. We're sharing it here in honor of Homer because it is no longer available elsewhere online.
By Mike Fitelson
14 September 2004
Flags in Inwood Hill Park flew at half-staff this week to honor the park’s guardian angel for the last eight years, Homer Young-Kennedy III. As news of his death Sept. 1 spread through a vast network of friends, he was remembered for his tremendous contribution to the park and his community.
Hundreds of park goers knew Homer by sight: a big man with a dark mustache, which hovered over a frisky smile. Josephine, his beloved chocolate Labrador, usually accompanied him. Some knew that he lived off disability stemming from the onset of lymphoma about 10 years ago. Fewer were aware of his previous careers as a wine importer and special education teacher back in Detroit over 20 years ago. With degrees in marketing and biology, he was at one time on track to be a pathologist or coroner. Most simply knew him as a neighborhood do-gooder who found special ways to make friends.
Lesly Curtis lived in the same Indian Road co-op as Homer. One of her earliest memories of him is from five years ago, waking up to the sound of snowballs crashing on her window. She peeked outside and saw Homer. “There’s this grown man out here wanting to have a snowball fight with me at 10 in the morning,” she said. “He had a way of waltzing his way into your heart.”
To list the events and organizations that Homer offered his service to is to describe the social landscape of much of Northern Manhattan: the Shad Festival, Native American Festival, the Inwood Branch Library, Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change, Inwood Patrol, the 34th Precinct Community Council, Uptown Arts Stroll, Community Board 12, and of course Inwood Community Coalition, which he founded in the mid 1990s.
But of all his activities, the one he took the most seriously was his role as caretaker of Inwood Hill Park, which he treated as lovingly as if it was his own backyard. He took on the responsibility of unlocking and locking the Indian Road Playground every day. A park bench served as his office where he would meet friends and neighbors who sought his advice.
Northern Manhattan director of parks Jane Schachat called Homer “our gift.” She remembers how local residents had clamored for a dog run in Inwood Hill Park for 10 years. Then Homer arrived and built the coalition to make it happen.
“His persona was just something that you didn’t say no to,” she said. “More than just caring for the park, it was caring for the community and the kids, being a fixer too.”
While active in the community for years, he didn’t join Community Board 12 until 2003, lending it his tireless support and firebrand humor, which could defuse a tense moment with the skill of a bomb squad.
“His sense of humor could lighten up a situation in a moment’s notice,” said CB12 chair Martin Collins.
One of Homer’s last public appearances was at the opening reception for the Uptown Arts Stroll in June. He had recently been released from the hospital and, as was his nature, threw himself into his role, running the “Taste of WaHI” portion of the event with the poise of an Iron Chef. Food was trayed aesthetically and served professionally. Anyone caught picking at the food in the staging area received the lash of his wit. “He had a poet’s eye for detail,” said Collins, who Homer chased away from the food several times that night.
A couple of weeks after the Stroll, the 52-year-old Homer was hospitalized for meningitis and encephalitis, first at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn then at New York University Medical Center. His condition deteriorated over the summer until Aug. 20, after a second stroke, when he was taken off life support. He passed away 12 days later, said Randall Raymond, his health proxy and friend of 17 years. Raymond called the care that Homer received at NYU “above and beyond the call of duty.” A public memorial service is scheduled for Sun., Sept. 26 at noon in the meadow in Inwood Hill Park near Indian Road.
With sorrow still clinging to Inwood, local leaders are beginning to discuss a suitable tribute for the man who was so committed to the outdoors. One possibility gaining popularity is to name Inwood Hill Park’s dog run in Homer’s honor, although it has also been suggested that any tribute short of renaming the park after him will fall short of measuring up to his contribution.
Regardless of how memories of him are passed down to future generations of residents, those who knew him will remember a dedicated community activist who blended a roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic with candor and a sharp wit.
“In eight years in our community he did a lifetime’s work,” said Collins. “It’s a loss that cannot be weighed.”