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Farewell to Kurt Detwiler, First Person to Ever Publish My Photographs in His Book “Coasting Along”

Today I say a sad goodbye inside my heart to Kurt Detwiler, an old friend I’d lost touch with, whom I learned passed away last night. Kurt was the first person to ever publish my photographs when I shot the cover photo and many interior accent photos for his 1997 book Coasting Along: A Bicycling Guide to the New Jersey Shore, Pine Barrens and Delaware Bay Region. I just learned of Kurt’s passing, amazingly, through someone who found me via As Seen by Janine’s Photo Blog and used my contact form to reach out to me, for which I am very grateful.

Coasting Along Cover Photo of Kurt Detwiler

Coasting Along Cover Photo of Kurt Detwiler

I learned the news of Kurt’s passing from a stranger, as did many of my mutual friends who knew Kurt, because, as I mentioned, we had lost touch. The news of his death hit me with no small amount of sadness, for many reasons, not the least of which is that he was my age (only 51), and also not the least of which is that the last time I saw Kurt was in 1997, when he took me out to dinner to thank me for my work on the photographs for this book. I’ve actually had no contact with him since then, nor have most of the mutual group of friends who knew Kurt, though like many of us, I’ve never given up on the idea that at some time Kurt would come back into the circle of our lives.

We all went to Gettysburg College together back in 1979-1983, give or take a year or two for some of us, depending on what year we graduated. Those friendships became lifetime friendships for a good solid group of us, but the one person we’d all lost touch with was Kurt. He had chosen, for reasons none of us still really understands, to distance himself since the late 1990’s or early 2000’s from everyone from that part of his life.

Oh there were “sightings” from some of our efforts to search Kurt out, such as the time a little over three years ago that someone found a newspaper article about Kurt being the first person in line for the opening of the Big Savage Tunnel in Maryland as it opened for the end of the winter season. There had also been a video posted of this event, showing Kurt riding his bike that day through the tunnel along the Great Allegheny Passage trail. That video was the last glimpse many of us ever had of Kurt. Here is the video link and also  the newspaper story.

An actual “sighting” occurred, as I understand it, when another friend successfully hunted Kurt down and simply showed up to see Kurt a few years ago. Aside from that, we’ve all just been trying to make sense of why Kurt had chosen to walk away from all of our friendships. Had he become a hermit? Was he suffering from depression? Was he happy? Did he enjoy his life? These and many more questions haunt me and now I can never ask them…

I have always wanted to find Kurt again to tell him that he truly helped to launch my photography career by choosing me to take the cover photograph for his Coasting Along book. In addition to the cover, Kurt included quite a few of my New Jersey Shore area black and white scenic photographs as accent photos in the book’s interior. We had joked that the rides in his book were very often “Miles From Nowhere” but I just so happened to have photographs of some of those remote locations.

Others, such as the Cape May Lighthouse, I went and photographed specifically for Kurt’s book. The light house photo was taken in sub zero weather, with my son, Justin, shouting to anyone who would listen, “We’re going to die out here, my Mom’s trying to kill me!”  Sure was glad Kurt chose to include that photo in the book, and that my son didn’t lose any extremities from frostbite! It is a memory Justin and I treasure again and again, including that I bribed him to remain out there on the Cape May beach with me that day, with a very questionable parenting technique, which was promising to take this 10 year old kid to see the “Bevis and Butthead” movie in the Cape May theater after the photo was successfully captured. Probably wasn’t age appropriate, but that entire day remains one of Justin’s and my most treasured memories, and it was all thanks to Kurt requesting a Cape May Light House photo.

It filled me with such pride to have so many of my photographs published for the first time ever in Kurt’s book.

[Note: I am credited as Janine A. Fisher in the book – although I was divorced, at that time I was still using my married name so my son and I would have the same last name. I resumed using my maiden name of Janine Fugere in 2002, when my son got older.]

All these years, despite having lost touch with Kurt, I have even hoped that there might be a possibility that someday, I’d shoot photographs for another of his books on bicycle touring through historic regions. Kurt, as both a wildly enthusiastic bicyclist and an avid history buff, combined the love of both into several books, which are still available on Amazon and many other sources.

In searching online to see what I could find on Kurt today, I found a photograph of him which, while I don’t know how old it is, nonetheless is the most recent photograph I have of Kurt. I am hoping the Cumberland Times will not mind my including this image from their newspaper, to help me hold a memory of my dear old friend…

Kurt Detwiler – Cumberland Times Photograph

I am grateful to Kurt’s friend, Jennifer, for taking the time to reach out to me and let me know that Kurt passed away on September 1, 2012. It is amazing to me that she found me, which I can only guess was possible because I have an image of Kurt’s book on my “Sales and Publications” page of this blog. However, strangely, that page had been unpublished for the past couple of months because I had hidden it until I could update it to add more recent sales and publications. Yet, somehow Jennifer found me anyhow. Even though I know it is too late f or him to see it, I republished that page today as a memoir to Kurt. I am hoping it may be possible that Kurt saw actually that post sometime before he died and knew what an important part of my life and my photography career he was. However Jennifer found me, I take great solace in the words she sent which said that Kurt was surrounded by loved ones and appeared to be in no discomfort at the end. She also shared a beautiful gift with me, which was to tell me these words:

“I know that he had not been in touch with you for awhile, but I also know that he valued your friendship and counted you as a person who had been important in his life. ”

Thank you Jennifer for making sure I knew that.

Thank you Kurt for making sure that there was someone who knew to tell me I’d been that important to you, too, as you’d been important to me. I still have my autographed copy of Coasting Along which I will always treasure, and I will always be grateful to you for helping to launch my photography career.

Fare Thee Well Kurt…. I wish you peace in “whatever comes after.”

Love, Janine

As Seen by Janine: Eyes of the World Images

ADDENDUM NOT POSSIBLE TO INCLUDE IN COMMENTS:

I received this email from Kurt’s friend, Meg Romero, who wrote to share with me memories and photos, since there was no way for her to post the photos in the comments on my blog. She wished to share that Kurt, in fact, had a very close group of friends, and a richly creative life during the latter years of his life, despite that he’d gone missing from our lives.

Meg’s email gave us comfort to know he had some great quality of life, at least until his health declined into the dark place which caused alcohol to eventually take his life. All the same, Meg’s email also filled us with sadness that we were not a part of his life then. For whatever reason, fighting his demons, for Kurt, needed to include severing ALL ties to his past, including all of us who were Kurt’s “Gettysburg Family.”

We take solace in knowing, after the fact, that, nonetheless Kurt chose two of us from Gettysburg to name as “important people to notify once he died.” I was one of them, which has touched me so deeply…

Back to Meg’s email, these photos and her words MUST be shared!

Hi Janine~

Lovely to hear from you!

Kurt and I organized a “Dandy Bicycle Parade” for a few years: it was good fun, but…sheeze..too much work and too much $$ went into an event that lasted twelve minutes ! (we thought and thought about ways that we could S-L-O-W D-O-W-N the parade…but they are kids on bikes and they are NOT INTERESTED in slowing down! )

Kurt at the "Dandy Bicycle Parade"

Kurt at the “Dandy Bicycle Parade”

The photos:
I HATED these black and white sunglasses: absolutely hated them…. BUT! He was very proud to have found them, and he thought they were a great match for his new bike…..so…. I kept my mouth shut!

Kurt Riding in the Dandy Bicycle Parade

Kurt Riding in the Dandy Bicycle Parade

He was so proud of his POLLOCK bike! I thought he had painted a pair of shoes also, but seeing this photo again I guess I made that part up. To hear him tell the story, he was a wild man putting all that paint on therem and I bet if I looked around his property I could still find some paint splatters!
I love the look on his face in this shot..this is the expression that I’m going to remember…

Kurt and his Jackson Pollock Bike

Kurt and his Jackson Pollock Bike

And finally: my husband and I hosted some pretty cool Halloween parties: lots of people and AMAZING costumes! I’d estimate that over the years, we probably had 400 or so costumes, and Edward Scissorhands is my all-time favorite. Not only was it a striking costume, I LOVED the thought of Kurt carefully sewing all those scissors onto a pair of gloves… and searching for the perfect pocket protector. He made a wonderful metal-y noise as he walked around…We all had fun that night!

Kurt as Edward Scissorhands

Kurt as Edward Scissorhands

As Jen was sorting through some things last week, she told me that she found the gloves in a box in his closet. Hmmm.
I may consider asking her for those….

And finally…”Holly and Edward” …. that’s me…pretending to have my Breakfast at Tiffany’s…

Meg and Kurt as Holly and Edward

Meg and Kurt as Holly and Edward

Ahhh. Good Times!

In Frostburg, Kurt was right smack in the middle of everything that he enjoyed: art, poetry, and of course, his #1 love: his bicycle.

It is really important to me that you know that Kurt was surrounded by incredible friends here… There is no question that he kept some walls up, but as far as I could tell, everyone respected his “space.”  I have no doubt that he knew how much they loved him, how much they enjoyed and supported his writings, and how much we all appreciated his assistance with our bicycling techniques!

Thanks for getting in touch with me~
Warmly~
Meg

THANK YOU MEG FOR SHARING THESE JOYOUS PARTS OF KURT’S FINAL YEARS.

[ Side note from Janine: I so treasured learning of Kurt’s love of Jackson Pollock and Meg’s photo of him all “Pollocked Up” that I was deeply moved when one of the students where I teach created a birdhouse in Art class, splatter painted in Jackson Pollock Style. After my telling the student of Kurt, and why his bird house was so special to me, the student came on the last day of school and presented me with his Pollock Bird House as a gift. I keep it inside my home, as art, beside my copy of Kurt’s Coasting Along book.]

Jackson Pollock Birdhouse by Josh

Jackson Pollock Birdhouse by Josh

THANK YOU ALSO TO JENNIFER, WHOM FROM WHAT WE CAN TELL, WAS THE SOLE PERSON KURT ALLOWED NEAR HIM TOWARD THE BITTER END. WE ARE SO GRATEFUL TO YOU FOR FINDING ME AND OTHERS, SO WE LEARNED OF KURT’S PASSING. IT IS NOW OVER 2-1/2 YEARS SINCE KURT’S DEATH, AND HE IS STILL NOT FORGOTTEN, NOR COULD HE EVER BE….

READ THE COMMENTS FOR MORE SHARES FROM OTHER FRIENDS…

By Janine Fugere

As Seen by Janine: Eyes of the World Images

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15 Responses

  1. Janine:
    I just want to thank you for taking the time to write about your friend Kurt. I came across the post as a Google alert for Delaware Bay news (I run the baysavefoundation.com Web site) but read it with special interest because my two best friends from college, best man and groomsman in my wedding, etc. also cut all ties with me for no known reason. One disappeared same as Kurt but apparently with no trace that I could find. The other, I learned recently, had brain cancer and recently died.

    Because of your post, I hope to track down a copy of Kurt’s book “A Bicycling Guide to the New Jersey Shore, Pine Barrens and Delaware Bay Region”.
    Best regards,
    Tony

    September 3, 2012 at 4:19 am

  2. valerie

    Thank you for this blog. Like you I am searching for more about Kurt. He distanced from all his friends except Jen in the last few months. I’m so happy that he was important to you, like he was to me and many friends in the Western MD Wheelmen bicycle club.

    September 3, 2012 at 7:56 am

    • Valerie, Thanks for your note. I did learn more and will share a bit in these comments. I am happy he had friends in a bicycling community which was such a huge part of his life. Janine

      September 3, 2012 at 9:15 am

  3. Bridget McFadden

    So sad to hear of his passing. Do you have any idea of the cause of his death? It sounds like it might have been a protracted illness. I hope not.

    He was an interesting and quirky guy. The last time I saw him was in a bicycle shop in Haddonfield, NJ. I remember him well. Best of luck to you, Janine.

    September 3, 2012 at 8:24 am

    • Bridget, Funny, those “Haddonfield, NJ bicycle shop days” were also the same time frame as the last times I saw Kurt, back when he was working on the Coasting Along book. 🙂 Janine

      September 3, 2012 at 9:25 am

  4. I just spoke to Jennifer Browne, the friend of Kurt’s who had contacted me via my Photo Blog to let me know Kurt had passed away. Jennifer says she was a good friend of Kurt’s for about 5 years and one of the only friends Kurt had “let in” over the past year or so.

    I struggled with whether it was appropriate to share what I learned publicly like this, but it seems so many people have searched for understanding of why Kurt had become absent from their lives. The truth, while sad, will help people to understand just why Kurt had become so distant.

    I was very sad to learn that Kurt died from liver and kidney failure, and Jennifer confirmed that he struggled not only with alcohol, but with his inner demons for much of his life. Those inner struggles are the reason he distanced himself from so many people.

    Jennifer did say that, in his own way, Kurt knew he was loved and admired by so many of us. She also said that he had a very supportive community of people around him in the last years of his life. As for knowing how important we all were to him, Kurt’s health has been very precarious for at least the last year, and it seems he did reflect upon friends occasionally. For example, Jennifer said that about a year ago, he took out a Gettysburg Yearbook and was lovingly looking through it, and it was clear that it was a memory of a time and people that were treasured memories for him.

    The way she found some of us to contact was that, about 8 months ago, Kurt was hospitalized with a very close call. At that time, she asked him who she should contact if he didn’t make it. While initially he said there was nobody, Jennifer encouraged him, “Come on, who are some people who were important in your life and would want to know?” At that time, he did name several of us and Jennifer began her search for ways to be prepared to contact us. That is how she found me, because he must have mentioned that book project, and at that time, I had the page up which listed his book publication on my Sales & Publications page. I am grateful that she planned ahead and and searched out people in advance which I am thankful for since I actually had that page hidden for a couple of months meaning to update it. Had she waited until now to search, she likely would not have found me. I know she also found Jon, so I would have found out eventually, but it touched me deeply that she found me.

    Still, I don’t think it matters which of us Kurt actually named or who she contacted. What matters is that, in his heart, Kurt knew there are people who loved him and would want to know what became of him, and that he shared names with Jennifer so that she could at least find a couple of us in order to let us know and pass on the word. I am very relieved that he didn’t just vanish without a trace and leave us all wondering for the rest of our lives.

    I wish I could say Kurt had been happy in the end of his life, but as we all suspected, that was not the case. However, Jennifer did say that he retained that “Kurt Detwiler trademark” wit, cynicism, and curmudgeonly sense of humor which made him so lovable in his own way, right up to the end. That makes me smile, and as Bill said, I can just hear Kurt saying, “Yeah, I’m dead as a doorknob, so what? Get over it.” Easier said than done, but it does help to remember him as we knew and loved him – witty right up to the end.

    Jennifer will let me know as soon as she knows of any Memorial Services and I’ll pass that information on.

    Love,
    Janine

    September 3, 2012 at 9:33 am

  5. Mary S.

    Kurt was a friend of mine here in Western Maryland. He found a home here and seemed happy, or at least close to happy, for some of the years he spent here. He made a lot of friends who admired his humor, curiosity, and intelligence, and he was active in bicycling and the Great Allegheny Passage–I believe he was professionally involved with that organization in some way. Jen is a great person, and I’m glad she remained close to Kurt during this last sad chapter–she has the gentleness and humor he would have appreciated. I know he had a very difficult childhood, and dealing with that obviously became overwhelming. Such a sad story, but he will remain one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. Peace to you, Kurt. You deserve it after all this life’s pain.

    September 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    • Mary S.

      PS The photo is likely from a poetry reading–Kurt was quite active in the arts community in Western Maryland.

      September 3, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    • Mary, Thanks so much for sharing some positive images and details about Kurt’s life during the time you knew him. That is extremely helpful to know, truly, and I appreciate your reaching out, as do I’m sure, many others who knew Kurt. Janine

      September 4, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  6. JC

    Kurt was a great guy. I would talked to him every time I stopped in the bikeshop. He will be missed. I found that video you talk about.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQSMPfkch4Q&feature=related

    Sincerely,
    JC

    September 24, 2012 at 5:34 am

    • Thanks JC, and to all the friends of Kurt’s who reached out to let me know some of the wonderful & happy memories of his last few years. I am sorry I am unable to make his memorial service in Oct., but it is on my father’s 79’th Birthday, and my dad is not in great health. Losing Kurt and other loved ones has helped me learn not to take for granted having other birthdays to share later. My best to everyone who cared about Kurt. Janine

      [Addendum with benefit of hindsight: Kurt must have known and guided me not to come to his memorial, so that I could be with my father, who died 7 days later after his birthday party. I believe Kurt knew it would be my last chance to see my dad and guided my choice not to miss that chance. I can just hear Kurt, “For criminy’s sake, I’m dead, your dad’s not, but he will be soon, so go be with HIM!”]

      September 24, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  7. Scott Johnson

    Janine,
    I received my Gettysburg alumni newsletter today and read about Kurt. Kurt and I were roommates at Gettysburg freshman year. Strangely enough we had also been roommates in 1969 at Camp Ockanickon when we were 8 years old. When we got to Gettysburg in 1979 we soon realized that our original roommates just weren’t going to do. We plotted one Friday night about what had to happen. We finally decided just to tell and not ask. Kurt and I got the room on 3rd Rice and our castoff roommates went to the 1st floor. We spent many late nights listening to records and talking. Maybe too many but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Kurt had a ton of Blues and Folk records. I used to give him a ton of crap about it. At that time it was Patti Smith, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, The Clash and similar stuff for me. “Dave Van Ronk? Rev. Gary Davis? Jesus Christ Kurt don’t you have anything good ? ” I secretly liked a lot of what he played. Over the years I gravitated more and more to those styles and Kurt is definitely to blame!

    Take it easy Kurt, it was fun.

    February 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    • Scott, Thanks for sharing your memories of Kurt. I think Kurt, with his unique taste and style, had a lingering lifetime effect on many of us, that is for sure. 🙂 Janine

      February 7, 2013 at 9:29 am

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