Kent poet Merle Mollenkopf dies at age 78

By Kyle McDonald | Staff Writer Published:

For a video of Merle Mollenkopf by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, visit http://vimeo.com/mathiasperalta/merle

After serving more than 30 years as a driving force in the Kent community’s poetry and cultural arts scenes, Merle Mollenkopf, “the roaming troubadour,” died in his sleep Tuesday.

Mollenkopf, 78, died after a battle with esophageal cancer.

Friends of Mollenkopf remember him for his ability to recite hours of poems by poets including Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg with resonating presence, his intolerance for social injustice and love of golf.

“He knew that one of poetry’s timeless roles and functions in society and culture is to speak truth and often to speak it straight into the face of power, but he did it with a dignity and decency and with the elegance of the spoken word with the tradition of poetry that I think is a great model for all of us,” said David Hassler, director of Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center.

The spoken word and literature began shaping Mollenkopf’s life at an early age as he sat on his grandfather’s lap and listened to old Irish limericks and stories, said Kent poet Major Ragain.

Later in his life, after being struck by lightning on a golf course and having his memory wiped clean, poetry and walks became Mollenkopf’s tool to regaining his memory.

“He said that he couldn’t even remember his sisters’ names,” said Ragain. “Then Merle began to memorize Robert Frost poems. He would read the poem and then go walk in the snowy fields and say the poem. Eventually, he learned by heart over four hours of Robert Frost. You could literally name a Frost poem and he’d have it for you right there.”

The lightning strike didn’t keep Mollenkopf from the golf course, though. In fact, he was only three holes away from his lifetime goal of hitting 40 holes-in-one.

Between the poetry readings at the former Brady’s Cafe, Standing Rock Cultural Arts events, Kent’s Art in the Park, Kent Stage events, Friday night poetry at Last Exit Books and more, Mollenkopf helped inspire future generations of poets, Hassler said.

“For years, he called out and encouraged young poets in this town,” he said. “Merle, as a citizen and a man here in Kent, Ohio, was truly one of our great living treasures and will still remain in his memory and voice.”

Ragain described Mollenkopf as a “salty dog” — a man who grew up working with his hands, helping to build KSU dormatories in the 1960s and 1970s, and one not afraid to stand up to elitists or those who abused power.

“He had lightning in his head and fire in his belly. What a combination,” Ragain said. “Matters of social and political injustice ran through everything he did.”

In 2011, as senior citizens at the Silver Oaks complex faced imminent and unexpected eviction, Mollenkopf stood up in protest and participated in a downtown Kent rally to show his support.

Tom Simpson, owner of the Kent Stage, said Mollenkopf frequented the establishment more than any other patron.

“Left section, row M, seat 15,” Simpson said, recalling the seat the Kent Stage reserved for its favorite guest, adding that a plaque in Mollenkopf’s memory will be placed at his seat. “He was a true supporter of the arts, not only by coming to the shows, but as a moral supporter of all of us.”

Not only was Mollenkopf the first person to perform at the Kent Stage during the March 24, 2002 grand opening, but he’d also booked it well in advance for his 100th birthday party.

Simpson said Mollenkopf was always the grand finale of the Kent Stage’s yearly ghost walk, telling haunting stories of at The Pufferbelly, dressed in his tuxedo.

Hassler said although Mollenkopf’s presence in the community will be missed, his memory will carry on.

“As we lose loved ones in our community, the obligation is for that life and that example to deepen our own commitment to each other,” Hassler said. “Merle and his presence, and the fire in his belly radiating out, that’s a poem too. May we all continue to live our lives worthy of such a worthy man.”

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