Kenn Gilchrist — Former Casper Resident, Marine, Singer, Advocate Dies In Ohio
Former Casper resident Kenn Gilchrist died Thursday of complications from severe burns he sustained when he set himself on fire in Akron, Ohio, in protest of President Donald Trump's election in November.
He was renowned as a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam veteran, patriot, classically trained opera singer, probation officer, actor, sports fan, volunteer and devout Christian.
"Music is written for voices like Kenn's," said longtime friend Michael Stedillie, former chairman of the Kelly Walsh High School drama department.
"I sometimes think that when a composer writes a song, the composer thinks of the voice that he would love to hear sing that song, and his voice would be one of those," Stedillie said.
That voice is now silent.
Gilchrist moved from Casper to northeastern Ohio in 2012 to be closer to his family and where he grew up.
According to the Akron Beacon Journal, he continued his community-oriented life by volunteering at the Summit County Historical Society and helping coach a peewee football team.
But on Nov. 19, he committed an inexplicable and tragic act.
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 a recent anti-President Donald Trump rally because he wanted to keep protesting hate.
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.
He was taken to the Akron Children's Hospital where he stayed until he succumbed from burn-related infection.
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.
Gilchrist 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 Vietnam, he studied opera in San Francisco and eventually made his way back to an improved Casper.
His local community involvement included supporting the Self-Help Center’s efforts to help victims of domestic violence. He often sang at their vigils.
Stedillie knew Gilchrist through the arts.
Gilchrist played Jim in the Casper College production of "Big River" in the early 1990s, Stedillie said. "His performance in 'Big River' was nothing short of magical."
He also performed the National Anthem at veteran's events, Stedillie said. "It gave absolute meaning and truth to every word."
Despite the shrapnel that lodged in his thigh and made movement difficult, he rarely complained and stayed physically strong.
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.
In the Akron Beacon Journal story, his wife, Veronica, said her husband's story needs to be told.
“The only thing I can say from my point of view is that it’s been an honor and pleasure to be his wife for 36 years," Veronica said. "He’s such an amazing person. He had such a heart for everybody. He loved his family. And he did anything — anything — for everybody."