Obituary Writer Ken Garfield 71F Got His Journalistic Start at Hampshire’s “Climax” Student Newspaper

“Hampshire helped foster a restlessness and ignited a curiosity to go out and do something with my life,” Garfield says. He spent two decades with the Charlotte Observer, for 10 years as religion editor. In addition, he has edited and written a number of books. For the last several years, he has drafted obituaries, helping people and families celebrate lives and legacies in stories.
We asked him about his experience at Hampshire and how it inspired his extensive writing life.
Describe your Div III.
I wrote a “book” exploring the Kent State killings of May 4, 1970. I did it longhand since I couldn’t type. I became interested in Kent State in my first-year Political Justice class and went to Kent State for the first time in 1971. I landed in Akron in a snowstorm and asked the first guy I ran into at the airport if he was driving to Kent State and could he take me.
It was Thomas Grace, one of the nine students wounded in the Kent State shooting. We’re still in touch 53 years later. The project sparked my interest in exploring how people handle loss and led me years later to discover a calling writing obituaries.

“Hampshire inspired me to think for myself. To venture down daring paths.”

 What did you do after graduation?
Journalists typically took one or two routes — get a master’s degree or start work at a small newspaper, moving up to bigger ones as they learned the craft. I chose the latter, and Hampshire played a part: I was walking by the jobs-listing office on campus and spotted an opening at the Millerton News, a 2,000-circulation weekly in a tiny upstate New York town. I started work there a month before graduating. I stayed up all night finishing my Kent State “book” the day before it was due and drove it to Hampshire.
After 31 years in newspapers, about the time print journalism was barreling downhill, I went to work at a megachurch doing communications. Loved telling stories of faith and hope; didn’t love the politics and bureaucracy of organized religion. For the past eight years, I’ve been on my own, writing for nonprofits like the hospices at Via Health Partners, editing books, and crafting obituaries. Getting to tell stories and not have a boss? Enough said.
How did your experience at Hampshire influence your work?
Hampshire inspired me to think for myself. To venture down daring paths.
Working on Climax sparked my lifelong love of newspapers and writing. That Political Justice class taught me to keep an eye out for injustice and led me to Kent State. Kent State led to my later-in-life passion to help people tell their stories and capture their legacies in their obituaries.
Are there any projects you’ve worked on that were particularly satisfying?
I treat every obituary I write, whether for a titan or a retiree, with reverence and respect. Big projects? I wrote profiles of every Holocaust survivor living in Charlotte for the city’s main magazine. I wrote extensively about Charlotte native Billy Graham, whose Christian evangelism came with a sense of inclusiveness. I wrote Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s obituary.
I help people, often near death, answer the question “Why did my life on earth matter?” for future generations. The roots of that mission bloomed at Hampshire.