Kenn Gilchrist says Americans have a duty to speak out against hate, and protest President-Elect Donald Trump.

When the well-known former Wyoming resident — a talented singer, football player and retired parole agent — protested a few days before Thanksgiving, it was in a manner most people would never think of doing.

He doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

It happened in Akron, Ohio, where the 69-year-old Gilchrist and his family moved in 2012 after two decades in Casper. Witnesses were horrified by what they saw on Nov. 20. They put the fire out, saving Gilchrist’s life but leaving him with third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body, from his chest down.

Someone else should probably be telling his story; someone who knows him as a friend. I’ve seen Gilchrist sing several times at Memorial Day, Veterans Day and other special events and have always been amazed by his powerful voice, but I don’t know him. I can’t understand why he tried to take his life in such a public, dramatic way.

Then again, can anyone other than Gilchrist himself really explain it? 

Kenn Gilchrist (photo from Boys Town Alumni Association)

Gilchrist reportedly walked into a coffee shop and engaged five customers in a discussion about Trump. Wearing a Marine uniform, he told them he wanted to be at a recent anti-Trump rally in Akron but couldn’t attend. He said people should protest Trump’s election, but no one at the table could tell him who organized the protest or if another one was scheduled.

One of the customers said the man’s mood quickly changed and he allegedly told one of the strangers, ‘I have a f—–g gun, you S.O.B., and I’m not afraid to use it.'” But the same witness said before he left the shop he told the group to enjoy their coffee.

Gilchrist walked around the block and handed his cell phone to a passerby whom he asked to take a video. He suddenly got a gas can from his car, poured the gas over his body and flicked his lighter. The scene wasn’t recorded because the shocked man he asked to document his death quickly threw his coat over Gilchrist to put out the flames, and two other men ran out of nearby stores with fire extinguishers.

The owner of the coffee shop later told reporters, “He was curled in a fetal position perfectly still except for some hand movement and he was completely coated in ash.”

Hopefully that won’t be the last image people will remember about a man known by many in Wyoming as a “gentle giant.” Gilchrist has accomplished much in his remarkable life, excelling in several professions he explored during his career. His doctors at the Akron Burn Unit told Ohio news organizations they believe he will recover, but also cautioned that it will be a long, painful road he must successfully travel to heal. As of December 3rd, an Akron paper reported, Gilchrist was still breathing with the use of a ventilator.

Discrimination led Gilchrist to leave UW

People who only know about Gilchrist because of his protest would likely be surprised to learn his life story. Even those who knew him well now say that because Gilchrist always wanted to know about others, instead of talking about himself, stories have emerged that they are hearing for the first time.

Gilchrist was born in Cleveland in 1947. Orphaned by his mother’s death when he was 9 years old, he was raised by his grandmother until she died. He became a ward of the state of Ohio and was sent to Boys Town in Omaha, Neb. He excelled at football and was named a high school All-American by Scholastic Magazine in 1964.

A dual center and linebacker, he earned a scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where he played on the freshman team in 1965. But after one season he left to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. I believe one of the reasons was patriotism, which helps explain why he did two tours of duty in Vietnam.

But his life-long best friend, Mel Hamilton, whom he met at Boys Town, explained in a 2013 interview published by WyoHistory.org that his teammate was also troubled by the attitude toward blacks he encountered at UW.

“He did not stay in Laramie because of the atmosphere on campus… towards blacks,” Hamilton told interviewer Phil White. “And then he saw also that everybody was against blacks dating whites, and he didn’t like that. And I think he just — his mentality wouldn’t allow him to fight those kind of discriminations without striking back, I mean physically striking back, so he left.”

Hamilton’s own promising collegiate football career ended in 1969 with the Black 14 protest at UW. All 14 black members of the football team were dismissed because they wanted to wear black armbands to protest racially discriminatory policies of their next opponent, Brigham Young University, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

If Gilchrist had continued playing in Laramie, the most famous protesters in UW’s history would now be known as the “Black 15.” Instead, he went to war in Vietnam, was shot in his leg and received a medical discharge and a trip back to the U.S.

After he recovered from his wounds the veteran became a police officer in California, but some of his problems were hidden inside. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. While attending San Jose State University part-time he decided to join the university’s choir and then an opera training program. Gilchrist signed a contract to sing professionally with the San Francisco Opera.

“I was under so much stress, and the next thing I know, I’m standing on a stage singing in Italian,” he told Casper Star-Tribune reporter Matt Van Dusen in a 2003 Black History Month profile. “It was cheap therapy.”

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Despite his earlier treatment at UW, Gilchrist gave Wyoming another chance and moved his family to Casper, which he said seemed to be a friendlier community than Laramie. He obtained a degree in social work from the University of Wyoming at Casper College and took a job as a parole officer. He became a regular in Casper’s volunteer community, often singing at local events. When he retired his family moved to Akron, but he kept up his volunteer work at the city’s historical society and coaching his Pee Wee football team to a championship.

Unfortunately, for many people all of his life accomplishments have been overshadowed by his single act of protest on the streets of Akron. Some readers who commented on the Akron Beacon Journal’s website immediately jumped to the conclusion he was mentally ill or a crazed veteran with PTSD. Several questioned whether he is actually a veteran.

But none of those thoughts remotely compared to hundreds of readers’ hurtful and dangerous ramblings on a couple of right-wing “news” sites. I won’t dignify any of their inhumane comments by quoting them here, but the overall message was that the “looney left” should all follow Gilchrist’s example and kill themselves. They tried to turn his life, his sacrifices and his compassionate treatment of others into a horrible joke.

They did not and will not succeed, because such cruel people represent the views of only a few Americans. At least I hope so.

Friends call him a ‘man of integrity’

Wyoming residents who know Kenn Gilchrist were heartbroken to learn — mostly from Facebook posts — that his protest against Trump almost claimed his life. I could fill screen after screen with tributes to Gilchrist’s character and kindness, but I want to focus on what one former Casper resident thoughtfully told me about her memories of Gilchrist.

Bernie Strand, a counselor who now has a practice in Hawaii, said she first met Gilchrist while they were both seeking social work degrees at UW-CC.

“I worry that others will be quick to assign mental illness to Kenn’s actions,” she said in a phone interview. “I think about the Tibetan monks who purposefully drew national attention to their cause using self-immolation. Those acts, while desperate and horrifying, are not easily dismissed as stemming from mental illness.”

While she is shocked and saddened for her friend and his family, she believes his actions in Akron on Nov. 20 were entirely consistent with Gilchrist’s sense of patriotism. “Kenn is a man of deep conviction and personal integrity,” Strand said.

While she was writing a play she talked to Gilchrist about his military experiences in Vietnam. “I asked him whether he had been afraid,” Strand recalled. “He characterizes himself as a soldier, an ordinary man. He commented that he had felt very calm facing battle, feeling obligated to do what he had been trained to do.”

“What I would consider courage, Kenn considers his duty,” she added. “As a soldier he was asked to do his part, regardless of cost, to making the world a better place. In that way, he explained that his actions, even his death, would have meaning.”

I asked the counselor if she had an anecdote she could share to show people what her friend was like. She immediately thought of this one:

“Kenn and I had to travel to a distant town for a mutual appointment and we decided to go in the same vehicle. Kenn offered to drive,” Strand remembered. “It was about a three- or four-hour trip, and the road was a two-lane highway for most of the distance.”

Strand looked over at the speedometer during a long, straight part of the road. “I think the speed limit was 55 mph in that area,” she said. “I commented about how Kenn was driving slower than the limit.

“He responded, ‘The posted limit is not a suggestion, it is the limit. I don’t want to drive faster than the limit.’ I’m sure I was feeling frustrated about how slow we were driving, despite Kenn being an interesting conversationalist.

“After a few moments, he continued, ‘How can I hold my probationers accountable to the letter of the law if I flaunt it myself?’ That is the essence of who I know Kenn to be. He is a man of deepest integrity.”

Gilchrist made a personal decision that fit his political beliefs; he did not try to convince anyone else to go along with him. He did not make national news, probably because the media was too busy covering the daily bizarre antics of the man he passionately believed must be protested.

It’s a sad time for our new Trumpian country. The latest viral cat video gets millions of hits while a veteran with such a distinguished career sets himself on fire for his political beliefs and hardly anyone notices. What does it tell us about our priorities, what we think of each other, and our humanity?

Donations are welcome to contribute to the Gilchrist family to help pay medical expenses.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I call Kenn and his Family special friends. I have trouble understanding his actions but believe we will get together sometime and discuss it, Kenn is a great man! Help however you feel called.

  2. Wish he could get the mental help he needs! Obviously there are underlying issues that this man has. Prayers to him and his family!

  3. I was in an Native American sweat lodge with him. I had several conversations with him about his mother.Prayers for him and his family.