"The story of Rafiki"
by Jeffrey J. Knowles
The man whose name graces this music fund defies the standard boundaries of biography, at least partly because it is hard to imagine Kirk Horn standing still long enough for analysis and description. Such was his pulsating spirit—and one that surely surges on—in this soul with the heart of a boy and mind of a man. Even this music fund is a dynamic moving thing, at once an ending and a beginning, rooted in Kirk's twelve year embrace of the Rev. John Nganga's Rafiki orphanage for children of AIDS victims in Africa, then seamlessly segueing to this open-ended program bringing music to kids in Columbus.
Not surprisingly, then, two vivid dreams linked Rafiki and the Kirk Horn Music Fund (KHMF), as if a normal sequencing of events could not handle the power of Kirk's imagination. The first of these dreams invaded his sleep as a call from the Muse of Music, an intensely powerful vision preceding the 2012 Rafiki visit that convinced him that music was to be at the heart of what was happening in Africa. Erin Corrigan, who met Kirk in January of 2006 during his term as president of the Short North Rotary Club, and would be his partner in the music connection, says "he provided the vision, me the execution." She remembers Kirk telling her how he would wake up in the middle of the night with a clear view of some new explosive thought. Erin describes him as "larger than life Kirk."
The Rafiki dream was especially impacting on Kirk's fervid mind. We all know how some dreams can capture us in their webs for an entire day before we wash them out the following night. But Kirk's dreams did not end with a one-day run. He would be driven by them for months, or years.
The second dream came later, after the diagnosis of Kirk's brain tumor that would take his life in July, 2016. That one, inspired by the hungry passion of the Rafiki kids for musical instruments, rode on a question: "If there, why not here?" Kids are kids everywhere, so why not match the Rafiki children's joy of instruments with something similar in Columbus? So was born the vision that gave birth to the Kirk Horn Music Fund that is bringing high quality instrumental music lessons to local Boys and Girls Clubs in Columbus, and AIMS (Arts Impact Middle School at Ft. Hayes, a part of the Columbus Public School System). And with the dream of connecting kids throughout the world by the bond of music.
Two dreams, but both with the same end in mind. And both emanating from Kirk's deep involvement with the Rafiki orphanage for the children of AIDS victims on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Rafiki had come into the crosshairs of Kirk's irrepressible "can-do" personality in 2004 when he heard a Rotary club presentation about the Rafiki work. Kirk immediately began organizing the club's first overseas trip. That newly formed club which would become The Short North Rotary Club is, to this day, a critically important supporter of the Rafiki mission. (Many other people and groups also joined the remarkable Rafiki venture; see "Rafiki Means Friend" in the Columbus Monthly/Columbus CEO supplement to those December, 2019 issues: Giving: A Guide to Philanthropy 2020.)
The 2012 visit to Rafiki was filled with music. Popular Columbus musicians Jesse Henry and Eric Nassau brought along some extra guitars hoping to interest some of the kids in the instruments. When Jesse and Eric got off the bus at the orphanage the kids swarmed them. Some members from the Columbus group Grassinine—one of whom was Kirk—also were there, as well as a children's choir from Tanzania.
Kirk and Jesse both saw something beyond the impromptu celebration itself, and it had everything to do with the zeal of the Rafiki kids' response to the music, especially the instruments.
This writer remembers Kirk as a seven or eight year-old boy, part of the Horn family (parents Bob and Jenny, sister Alyson) who have been our close friends for nearly half a century. Kirk was the kind of child who immediately sets adults wondering what he will be like when he grows up. Such was his showcasing of what might lie ahead, a teasing peek at the potential. We all thought that surely the world was going to have to make some extra room for this one. There he was, in a kids' church musical, dominating the stage as he belted out song words that could have served as his lifelong theme song:
I am a promise, a possibility;
I am a promise, with a capital P;
I am a great big bundle of . . .
Sometimes that passionate potential took him to bizarre and humorous places. Rachel Mazur, the Short North Rotary Club president in 2019-2020 was drawn to Kirk as a kindred spirit when she first met him in 2003. She laughs uproariously as she spills out the story of how she and Kirk once decided to construct a sweat lodge (Go figure!) down at the Rockmill Brewery complex near Lancaster, Ohio, and owned by Jenny's sister, Judy, and her son Matt. With puppy-like enthusiasm Rachel and Kirk gathered a large tent and other materials for the task, including the smooth stones to be heated and watered for the steam. At the last minute, Rachel, in a fever to maximize the experience, decided to add some eucalyptus oil to the hot stones. Well, a bit more than "some." She poured half a bottle of the oil onto the rocks which resulted in an eruption of choking, noxious steam that sent Rachel, Kirk, his wife Zonia and son Elijah stumbling out of the opening.
Apparently, potentiality travels both north and south.
Speaking of work, it came as no surprise when Kirk's career veered toward salesmanship. If ever there was a person born with that gift . . . , as the saying goes. Ken Craft and Kirk worked together for eight years, the last four (2012-2016) at Logicalis, an international 6,500 employee company specializing in digital solutions for some of the world's leading technology companies, with annualized revenues of $1.7 billion. Ken, hired by Kirk in 2007, is a solution architect in the many-skilled firm. Kirk was a phenomenally successful salesman, and led all other salespersons his second year at Logicalis. Ken matter-of-factly describes Kirk as "driven, caring, funny, impatient, and genuinely interested in people." Then Ken's assessment takes flight: "He is widely considered by virtually everyone who knew him at Logicalis, and even prior to that, as the best salesperson anyone had ever seen. He had no peers."
That last quality is a signature of Kirk's that everyone recognized. "I've never met a salesperson," Ken adds, "who took the time and effort to get to know his customers as well as he did. I mean, he knew birthdays, and kids' names, and favorite places." Ken is quick to add that these weren't checklist items for Kirk—"he just had an unusual ability to recall things, and would go out of his way to do the simplest things." Ken then proceeds to tell the story of one of Kirk's customers who had married and honeymooned in Puerto Rico, and visited a little bar on the coast that had a special kind of rum. Fast forward six months to when Kirk is on vacation in PR. He manages to find the obscure little bar, has his wife Zonia take his picture in front of it, purchases a bottle of the highly favored rum and takes it home to his customer as a Christmas present.
This writer can add his own story underlining Kirk's indefatigable desire to focus on the others in his life, even in the shadow of death. I had a book published in late 2015 that he wanted to hear about—Kirk was also a voracious reader—and so we met to talk about it a few months later. He had read the book on one of his long, late-life journeys abroad and wanted to do something about it. By then his brain tumor was playing havoc with his memory, causing him to forget one or two of our attempts to get together. But when we finally did, Kirk's first question to me was, "So, what can I do for you?" Given that we had known Kirk since he was a little boy I knew that here was no throwaway line. On the spot he called Gary Vaughan, then president of the Short North Rotary Club, to schedule me as a speaker to present the book.
Bob and Jenny Horn, Kirk's parents, currently direct the Kirk Horn Music Fund, a donor advised fund of the Columbus Foundation. The term "legacy" gets tossed around rather easily in political circles, but the legacy Kirk's family pursues in his name is grounded in solid ongoing service that meets a very real need. In addition to the administration of the KHMF, the Horns have continued to engage the work at the street level, serving at the teaching sessions at least once a week (and bringing snacks for the kids) at the clubs, endeavoring to set up the tricky tech communications that would allow for some joint sessions with the Rafiki kids in Africa, and looking for other sponsoring hosts. (e.g., the Columbus School System's Arts Impact Middle School at Ft. Hayes was added in February, 2020)
On November 8, 2019, the KHMF hosted the first annual Kirk’s Concert (see the Kirk’s Concert tab for up-to-date information on the next concert) as a musical fundraising event at Columbus's Lincoln Theater that showcased the progress of their students at the two Boys and Girls Clubs. The kids also sang, and played guitars and drums. Megan Palmer, a singer from Nashville followed, then singer Jesse Henry and The High-Defs band performed a full concert. The Horns invested long hours in this seemingly risky venture—the Lincoln is a considerable event venue—but were rewarded with the sale of 350 tickets. The fundraiser was able to double the original dollar goal by clearing $12,000 during the evening, enough to cover a full year of lessons for the kids.
Appropriately, the event seemed to have Kirk's fingerprints all over it.
It would be a mistake to paint Kirk's last twelve years of life as a straight route from the Rafiki work in Africa to his signature on this fund that brings music to children in Columbus. Kirk was not drawn with straight lines, and pathways were never wide enough to keep him herded in a single direction. Of course, he had several high priority calls on his life—a full family world with Zonia and son Elijah, an extremely active social life, and the already noted career involvements. But even in the open lanes connecting two continents Kirk found additional space for his throbbing fascination with life's curious offerings. Grassinine, for example. The intriguing story of that "mountain rock" band—also more fully developed in the Columbus Monthly "Rafiki Means Friend" article—is described by Grassinine co-lead singer and Donatos President and CEO Tom Krouse as "an organic happening." The band formed in the wake of a backyard jam session involving some remarkable folks who were already getting connected with the Rafiki work. They included Dr. Terry Davis, a pediatric cardiologist with some five thousand surgeries to his credit and (now) twenty-one visits to Rafiki since 2004. Also included is Terry's son, Jamie, guitarist and the Short North Rotary's first president; Christina Grote playing the washboard, wife of Donatos founder Jim Grote; and Lee Bass, vocalist and Mandolin player and an early visitor to Rafiki. Oh, and Kirk Horn, percussionist and backup vocalist. The music was already flowing in his veins.
Another of Kirk's excursions went through Nashville, where he had worked for a brief period in his career just after his graduation from Michigan State University with a degree in Communications. There, Kirk first saw the "music in the round" concept in action in the city's Bluebird Café , an extended jam session featuring young artists and the music they have written and performed on instruments for which the songs were written. Kirk quickly saw the possibilities for something similar in a fund-raising venue in Columbus when the Rafiki work came to the rotary club. The club's Music in the Round concert will host its fifteenth annual event on March 7, 2020, a solidly successful run that has generated significant funding for the Kirk Horn Music Fund as well as the orphanage at Rafiki and other Short North Rotary projects.
It was probably one of these sidesteps that connected Kirk and the Short North Rotary to the Rafiki work in the first place. Terry Davis, who was to play such a crucial role in that venture, served as Chairman of the Steering Committee for International Patients for many years. In that capacity he received a request from Mercy Ships concerning two young Iraqi Kurdish girls, Warveen and Chra, both around seven or eight, who were slowly dying of heart problems that the local medical community in Iraq could not address. Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus and Terry's pediatric cardiology surgical team agreed to bring them to Columbus for the difficult surgeries in 2003. Pro bono. Terry said when they met the families at the Columbus airport the girls were blue, such was the effect of the sluggish flow of their thickening blood. Terry contacted Kirk, then the service chair at the Rotary, for help. That contact would lead to Kirk's invitation to Terry to present the Rafiki work for the full club. Meanwhile, Kirk and his family, moved by the Iraqis' plight, dove into the business of taking care of the families' non-medical needs here, a job in which Terry said Kirk was "very much involved," including transportation needs, a meal in the Horn's home—even a make-over for the girls at a store in Easton. Kirk also recruited Rotary members to "do something fun" with the girls—Rachel said she took them to Chuck E. Cheese's where they were delightfully overwhelmed, though a bit more reserved than their American peers. The surgeries succeeded very well, with the girls' complexions immediately turning from blue to pink. This past Christmas (2019) Terry received his sixteenth holiday letter from one of the parents, Rashid. As always, it was a letter of gratitude for saving the girls and giving them normal lives. Kirk also corresponded regularly with the grateful father, and Zonia received a heartfelt letter from Rashid when he heard of Kirk's death.
There is something reassuringly beautiful about a good person who dies the way he lived. Such a scene both reaffirms the integrity of his life and leaves the gift of hope to those left behind. Let's be clear; Kirk Horn's death scenario extended over a couple of tough years and was laced with unavoidable pain. But he always kept one foot in the game, one eye focused on the horizon line.
In his late stages Kirk and Zonia met with individuals who had shared the Rafiki journey with them. One evening these included Tom Krouse and Jane Grote Abell, Donatos Board Chair and married to Tom. Kirk that night told them he would do "what I can, while I can." Jane, especially, was taken by Kirk's second dream that would eventuate in the Kirk Horn Music Fund aimed at including the Columbus kids. She immediately suggested that the Music Fund could begin by planting one of its first two programs in the Boys and Girls Club at the Reeb Avenue Center founded by Jane and her friend Tanny Crane on Columbus's near south side.
Three years later, Lauren Light, Director of the Reeb Avenue Center, would say that nothing in her previous experience with Boys and Girls clubs around the country came close to the quality of the music lessons provided through the KHMF, and that her kids often asked her to come in and listen to their learning sessions with Jesse and his fellow teachers. Likewise, Liz Moody, then-director of the second KHMF plant at the Milo Grogan B&G Club stated her belief that the program "is really making a lifelong difference" with her kids.
Jane would later say that Kirk "taught us how to live well." So, too, for dying well.
During his final months of life, Kirk thought a great deal about what he could do for his family. It was as if he had to fully engage this life right up to his last breath. And so began an almost unthinkable schedule of travels in his late extremity. It began in the summer of 2015 with three weeks in Italy, the first one of which was a sales goal reward from Logicalis. Kirk, Zonia and Elijah then extended the visit two more weeks. Coming home they visited New Orleans, then on to Houston for what turned out to be Kirk's terminal diagnosis at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Undeterred, the family headed for New York City for Christmas where they took in Hamilton while it was yet in its pre-Tony Award days on Broadway. New Year's Day saw them in Costa Rica, thence to the Queen Mary II bound for England. In February the family finally took a break. They then travelled to Florida for Spring break, and Easter saw them heading for California to spend some time together with Aly and Kirk's parents in Palm Springs.
From Los Angeles, Kirk, Zonia and Eljah flew to Japan to be with friends. This was followed by a South China Seas cruise which took them to Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Even their return to LA did not signal an end to the travels. They hopped in a car and drove north to Vancouver where they joined up with Bob and Jenny for a trans-continental train voyage to Toronto, with stops along the way. This brought the remarkable international burst to an end just one month before Kirk died.
And when that passing finally arrived both Horn families were in Folly Beach, South Carolina for an intended month of entertaining friends in a large guest house there. Like Tennyson's aged Ulysses, leaving his hard won home and taking to the sea for the final voyage, Kirk seemed driven by a last look at another part of Creation. But Kirk took his family with him. Folly Beach played an intriguing role in the final scene. Grassinine's Jamie Davis has a brother who lives there, and it is the home town of the nationally renowned band, Dangermuffin, whom Kirk had befriended during one of their concert swings through Ohio. He had spontaneously invited the group to his house after the concert. The richness of the ensuing friendship was demonstrated by the band when they visited Kirk a week before his death and invited him to play some percussion at their Charleston, SC recording studio. Kirk’s contribution ended up on the final song on their album Heritage that would be released in early 2017. "One Last Swim" was the song and it has become, for Dangermuffin and many of Kirk’s friends and family, the anthem of Kirk's life—and death.
On July 14, 2016, at the age of 45, Kirk stepped over death, itself, in his persistent pursuit of life. Something in this adult man—probably drawn in part from that eight-year old heart which he never surrendered—clearly saw that life was a subset of Life, here and There, now and Then. He left over 50 recorded video messages for Elijah to watch as he grew up. As Kirk was always anticipating the future, he wanted to make sure that when Elijah was a grown man he would have a sense of his dad and who he was. The messages include advice on the importance of friendships, saying "thank you," and apologizing. The same messages left a wonderful view of Kirk’s favorite things in life, and why.
Nor were those the only videos he sent posthumously. On a summer day in 2016 we gathered at the Rockmill site for a large celebration of Kirk's life. His family called it Kirkibration. (Earlier, a smaller group had met at the Strouse family cabin—Jenny's Mom's side—in Holmes County for a more muted remembrance.) The Rockmill event was, as Kirk wanted it to be, a lively time, but we quieted down when we met under a huge tent to hear and see the video Kirk had prepared for us in that moment. Jenny, Bob, Aly and Zonia had seen it only once, the night before. Many, perhaps most, of us braced a bit for what might be a poignant, tearful engagement. Instead, Kirk spoke to us easily, sometimes humorously, not about a tragedy but rather about the great light death can shine on the living. He was not interested in putting in place some final personal legacy, or the creation of a poignant self-eulogy. Instead, Kirk used the aid of that great teacher, death, to exhort us to repair and redeem any broken relationships this side of the grave, to cast aside old wounds or hard words that poison a life of love. He was primarily concerned with his duty as "host" of that event to see to the needs of his guests. It was the most remarkable memorial service moment this guest had ever witnessed. Or experienced.
Then he left us—for a season—lured, intrigued, by what Life would offer next.