Former Casper Cop, Singer, Veterans And Social Justice Advocate Needs Our Help; Kenn Gilchrist Set Himself On Fire To Protest Trump
You may have heard Kenn Gilchrist sing if you attended a Casper College athletic event, a ceremony for veterans or a vigil for domestic violence victims.
Gilchrist may have been your probation officer, a fellow actor, a football fan, a volunteer with a charity, a coach, or a friend to share a Bible verse.
He is a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam veteran, and a patriot with a passion for social justice.
Most recently, Gilchrist, 69, was an anti-Donald Trump protester in Akron, Ohio, after which he committed an inexplicable and tragic act.
On Nov. 15, 1,150 people peacefully marched down West Market Street, one of the main thoroughfares through Akron, to protest Trump’s election.
Four days later, Gilchrist wore his Marine uniform, walked into a cafe on West Market Street about two miles west of downtown Akron about 9:20 a.m., and asked who organized the anti-Trump rally because he wanted to keep protesting hate. When customers said they didn’t know, he became belligerent and vulgar, saying he fought for his country and telling them where he served. He also said he had a gun.
Gilchrist walked outside the cafe, gave his cell phone to a stranger and asked him to record what would happen next. He went to his car and got a can of gasoline, doused himself and set himself on fire.
The stranger was able to put out the fire, but not before the flames burned his clothes and flesh. Gilchrist lay on the ground in a fetal position and was burned over 60 percent of his body from his chest down.
He was taken to the Akron Children’s Hospital for burn treatment, where he remains.
Michael Miller, the Gilchrist family spokesman, said the two have been dear friends for 40 years.
“We met as police officers in San Mateo, (Calif.),” Miller said. “We were roommates, and we remained friends for all these years in regular contact.”
Being a cop was part of Gilchrist’s legendary life. He grew up an orphan in Cleveland, was raised by his grandparents, and attended Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., where excelled in sports, especially football.
He came to Wyoming in the mid-1960s to work as a lumberjack.
Kenn also played football at the University of Wyoming with local educator Mel Hamilton — one of the “Black 14″ athletes ejected from UW’s football team — and found the racism in the state too much, he said.
“He stayed and I went into the Marine Corps,” Kenn told this reporter in 2006. “It was the height of the civil rights movement; it was so tense you could cut it with a knife.”
During his second tour of Vietnam, shrapnel from an explosion tore through his thigh.
After the Marine Corps and Vietnam, he studied opera in San Francisco and eventually made his way back to an improved Casper. “It’s changed from a bunch of people living together to a community; a vibrant, dynamic community,” he said then.
Kenn frequently sang the National Anthem at sporting events and at veterans’ observances. He supported the Self-Help Center’s efforts to help victims of domestic violence and often sang at their vigils.
Despite the shrapnel that lodged in his thigh and made movement difficult, he rarely complained and stayed physically strong.
Kenn returned to his northern Ohio roots four years ago and moved his family to Akron four years ago.
But it remains unclear why a veteran, a patriot, a social justice advocate and most recently a man opposed to Donald Trump would go to such a dark place and set himself on fire. It is reminiscent of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam who committed self-immolation.
That question isn’t as important now as the response central Wyoming needs to give to a local hero.
Miller said Gilchrist is in a semi-induced coma because the grafts are so painful, but he seems to be holding steady.
“He is stable and we’re all hopeful,” Miller said.
Miller, as the family spokesman, said Gilchrist’s family is in great pain, hunkered down, and does not want to be overwhelmed with cards and calls.
He urges people to send cards to Gilchrist in care of him, Michael Miller at P.O. Box 1028, Santa Rosa, CA 95402; or at 438 First Street, 4th Floor, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for the family.