My Interview with the Son of Poet James Patrick Kinney
by Susan Hawkins
I hope you’re on this page because you just read our featured poem, “The Cold Within”. If not, you might just want to click here to read the poem and the story behind it, so you’ll know why we think James Patrick Kinney should be celebrated as a man who brought the ideals in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If” to life.
The author of “The Cold Within”, James Patrick Kinney, was born on March 16, 1923, in Cincinnati, Ohio. On May 29, 1974, he left this world, and he left it better than he found it. A man of integrity, Kinney lived his principles and created a poem that spoke his heart. And if you think it’s the only poem he wrote—you’d be wrong.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Kinney’s son, Timothy, about his father, the poem, and the possible consequences of doing the right thing. Here, as they say, is the rest of the story—and more:
SH: When the Cheviot city council changed the law eliminating the curfew for African Americans in your city, was the struggle over?
TK: My father had been warned that opposing the City Council was not a very smart thing to do and that there would be repercussions. Well, my family’s had a large field behind us that had always been left natural, and the neighborhood liked it that way. The house butted up against a natural field with bunny rabbits, and everybody liked it the way it was.
But once this happened, we got a letter from the city saying that we must mow that field immediately or they would mow it and charge us, so my father had the field mowed. There was also a small stream that went through the field that was the run-off from the streets. Soon after the field was mowed, we got a notice from the city that the stream was considered an open storm sewer and needed to be enclosed with concrete pipe.
So my father enclosed the stream with concrete pipe and covered it over and, as far as I remember that was the end of the harassment. Since that field had been the way it was since long before we moved in, it was clearly harassment from the city in response to my father’s activism. But my father rolled with the punches and just met their requirements, and it all kind of blew over.
After he wrote “The Cold Within”, he gave a copy to our minister, who read it in church, and people wanted copies. Later on, our minister was going to an ecumenical council meeting where people of various faiths got together to explore commonality in ways which they could cooperate among different sects. Our minister read the poem at the ecumenical council meeting and afterwards, lots and lots of ministers and priests and rabbis came up and wanted copies of it. So our minister gave out copies to these people. They all went home and used it in sermons in their own church and, before long, it spread like wildfire.
The next time [the poem] showed up was in a Dear Abby column, and it was listed as “by Anonymous.” My mother wrote to Dear Abby saying that my father had written the poem and gave a little history of my father. The next installment of Dear Abby featured my mother’s letter about the poem and my father.
In the early ‘80s, I was listening to a radio station on our local cable TV network, and there was a talk show from the West Coast, maybe Los Angeles. The host said, “I have a poem I want to read to you,” and he read “The Cold Within.” Again, it was “by Anonymous”, so I called in and told him that it was written by my father, which he announced afterwards.
Little by little, this poem spread around, and it was the only poem my father wrote that ever got any notoriety. Today, it’s all over the Internet. There are people hearing it on YouTube videos, and it sort of gained a life of its own.
SH: Had your dad been a poet before this event?
TK: Yes. My father only went to the 10th grade of high school, when he dropped out to take care of his mother. Because of that, he spent his whole life self-educating and, in the process, he fell in love with poetry. He read a great number of poets and began to write poetry himself. By the time he wrote “The Cold Within,” he had written a number of other poems, but nothing was ever done with them. He occasionally would submit the “The Cold Within” to various publications, and they would always turn it down; it was too controversial. However, it was once published in the January 2000 issue of a Catholic publication called Liguorian, where it’s attributed to my father.
SH: Tell me a little bit more about your dad. What kind of man was he?
TK: My father was born in a very, very poor Irish family in Cincinnati and had a very tough childhood. He was constantly malnourished, along with his brothers and sisters. Though the other children were forbidden to play around the railroad tracks, my dad and his brother were sent to the railroad tracks to steal coal for heat. He lived a pretty tough life.
He was always the earnest one that always tried to better himself in a family where the men usually lived into their 40’s, and then died of alcoholism. It was not a distinguished family by any means. What saved my father was joining the Civilian Conservation Corps [the three C’s].
It was a government works program, and he was assigned to fight forest fires. In the three C’s, he got good nutrition for probably the first time in his life. And following the Civilian Conservation Corps, he joined the army, where he was a radio man. In the army, he got his teeth, which had always been really bad from the malnutrition as a child. They pulled all of his teeth and gave him dentures. He was stationed in the Philippines as a radio man, made it back from the war unscathed and married my mother [Marlyn].
SH: How was your relationship with him?
TK: My father and I had a very good relationship. When I was a young kid, my family would go camping on weekends with the entire neighborhood. We had moved to Chip Stone Drive near Harrison, Ohio; we lived in New Haven, just a little bit east of there. On Chip Stone Drive, the families all liked to go camping, so on the weekends the entire neighborhood would go camping together at campgrounds in Indiana. We had a good family relationship. My father was always trying to provide us with all the things that he never had.
SH: What did he do for a living?
TK: My father, with no education, worked as a janitor at Proctor & Gamble, which was the big employer in Cincinnati. While he worked as a janitor, he hung out with mechanical technicians who were designing machinery for the automation of the production there. He would watch what they were doing and discuss it with them. He was fascinated by machinery and, when a job came open for a mechanical technician, he applied for the job.
In order to get that job, you needed a couple of years of formal education, which he didn’t have—but they made an exception for him and made him a mechanical technician, which he absolutely loved. He worked as a mechanical technician for Proctor & Gamble for 17 years. He even helped an engineer design the machinery that stacks Pringles in cans!
He had health problems all his life because of the malnutrition he suffered as a child. But he was fairly robust in spite of that. He worked at Proctor & Gamble during the day and in the evenings, for extra money, he and a friend named Herb Strube, who did interior painting and wall-washing, and I worked with them.
I was just a kid, and my job was stirring the paint, as well as cleaning brushes and rollers. I would paint the insides of the closets because I could get in there good. We would wash the walls down with tri-sodium phosphate first and then paint.
My dad did a really good job; he was a professional painter, because his first job out of the service was working as a painter. Another thing about my father, he thought himself to be something of an inventor; he was always trying to invent something. While he was working as a painter, in the late 40s and early 50s, wallpaper began to get popular and was starting to intrude on their painting jobs.
My father thought, what if you could roll on a pattern that would simulate a repeating pattern of wall paper? He started inventing a roller with patterns–embossed rubber rollers that would be indexed with cogs, and as you rolled it on, one roller would roll one color, and then the other roller would roll the other color. He could never get it to work just right.
Within a few years, the roller was invented. His boss told him “no real painter is ever going to use one of those things. Those are just for handymen.” But it wasn’t very long after that, that the roller replaced the brush for most painting. My father always kicked himself that it never occurred to him to just use the roller to put on the paint.
Another one of his inventions was a burglar alarm. This was long before all the electronic burglar alarms that are available today. He had the idea to take a door stop you’d use to hold the door open and mount it on the other side of the door. When you close the door, the lever would flip down and hit the ground. In the arm of the lever was a CO2 cartridge; if anybody tried to open the door, it would force the CO2 cartridge into a spike that would set off a whistle. If you heard the whistle, you’d know that someone was trying to force the door open. It would also hold the door closed.
My father tried to get someone interested in producing it, though it never happened. In the late 70s or early 80s, I got one of those little catalogues in the mail selling the little tchotchkes that you can buy for $9.95 or $19.95, those impulse buys and crazy ideas you see on TV. It’s a little catalogue with lots of crazy inventions. I was looking through it, and there, on one of the pages, was my father’s burglar alarm, So someone he approached thought it was a good idea but decided to take it for themselves.
SH: What was your dad’s philosophy of life?
TK: At root, my father was a very conservative man. He was a devout Christian, and very conservative. He read a conservative magazine called “Human Events,” which was extremely conservative. At the same time, coming from his background as he did, he always had a soft spot in his heart for the underdog. He was very much attracted to the early civil rights movement. He was sort of a paradox. There were things about him that would be considered quite liberal today, and things considered quite conservative. When I was in my late teens, I became very liberal, in fact to the left of center, because these were the days of the Vietnam War protests and there were a lot of socialists on campus.
So I was very much against the draft and against the Vietnam War, and I had read a number of books that were somewhat biased to the left. My father was reading “Human Events,” so we were exact opposites on the issue. We would sit down to have a reasonable conversation to work out our differences, and we’d begin talking about politics, and it would become more and more animated.
Every conversation we had on the subject would end the same way. We had a two-storey home, and the children’s bedrooms were upstairs. We would take our shoes off and leave them around the house; my mother would always put them on the bottom of the staircase and say, “Take your shoes upstairs when you go.” There was always a pile of shoes at the bottom of the stairs, and every political conversation would end the same way. I would turn into a smart Alec and say something disrespectful to my father, and he would stand up with a glare in his eyes, and I would go running to the steps. As I ran up the steps, he would come to the bottom of the steps and throw shoes at me until I got around the corner. Later he would apologize, I would apologize, and we’d try to have the conversation again later. It would always end the same way, which, by today’s standards, probably sounds horrible, but it was a good family joke.
I turned into a hippy in the 60s, and my father was amazingly tolerant of me compared to most adults. But we did have our differences, and we were polar opposites. The funny thing is, over time, my views have come back around more towards what his were.
SH: It sounds like your dad wasn’t afraid to buck the system if he believed the system was flawed.
TK: My father was a very thoughtful man. Here’s another story: After 17 years of service at Procter & Gamble, Dad left on medical leave and moved to Florida, knowing that he only had a few years left. And he did only live a couple more years. But not long before he took his medical leave, there was an incident at Procter & Gamble. The United Way was a brand new thing then, and the big corporations were encouraged to get 100% participation in the United Way. Everyone at Procter & Gamble got a leaflet with information about the United Way, and they were encouraged to participate.
At the time, my father was active in a number of charities and had collected for charities at work, so they were surprised when he refused to participate in the United Way.
He was called into his boss’s office, and his boss said “Jim, I’m surprised you’re not involved in United Way.” My father explained to him that he was concerned about some of the organizations that were included in the United Way, and he was also concerned by some of the organizations that were not included. He felt that United Way could kill some of the smaller charities that were not involved. He expressed his ideas, and his boss told him, “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
About a week later he was called to the office of his boss’s boss, and his boss’s boss said “I understand we have a problem about United Way.” My father said, “There’s no problem. I’m just not going to participate.” And his boss’s boss said “Well it’s very important to the corporation that we have 100% participation. How about we donate a dollar in your name? It won’t cost you a thing.” My father said “No, I don’t want to participate.” The man said, “Well, no problem,” and Dad went on about his business.
About a week later, Dad was called to see the boss’s boss’s boss, who said it was really important to him to have 100% participation. At that point, my father said that if there was any doubt in his mind before, there was none now; he would not participate. He told the big boss charity was supposed to be something freely given, and he would not be coerced into giving to a charity that he did not believe in. And, again, he went on about his business.
A week after that, he was called into his boss’s office and told he was being transferred to a different project. He had been working with the man who was designing the automated equipment that stacked Pringles into cans. It was a very interesting project for my father, and he was intricately involved in it. So my dad said, “We’re almost done with this project. Can’t it wait until we finish?”
He was told, “No, no, we need to transfer you now.” For his new job, Dad was put in a small room with a washer and a dryer and stacks of clothing. He was to wash the clothing in laundry detergent, dry it, label the bundle, and then do another load. It was clear that he was being encouraged to quit. But, he didn’t quit. He continued and did his job. It wasn’t long after that he started having more severe health problems and took early retirement on medical leave.
SH: Wow! That is unbelievable. Then again, I look at the world and realize it’s totally believable.
TK: My father was a very generous man, and he was, more or less, mild mannered. He had an Irish temper, but it never extended beyond yelling at a piece of equipment that wasn’t treating him with the proper respect. Basically, he was a gentle man, but he could not stand a bully. And if he felt he was being bullied, he would stand his ground no matter what.
That was what led him to stand up against the city of Cheviot, and that’s what led him to stand up against the United Way. He was always tilting at windmills.
SH: Do you believe your father lived the ideals he hoped to convey in his poem, “The Cold Within”?
TK: Yes, I do. He was a friend to all kinds of people at every station of life. He had friends and acquaintances that were fairly well off—lawyers and such. At the same time, he had friends at the very lowest stations of life. Dad thought of them all equally. He was a person that saw the value in everyone and was extremely tolerant; even though he was a conservative, he was a Christian conservative and very tolerant of differences in other people. He was a man of great principle, and I think he really did live his ideal.
SH: What is the single most important thing you would like your father to be remembered for?
TK: The search for truth. He always sought the truth, whether it was a popular truth or an unpopular truth.
SH: An inspiring story. I know you’re proud of your father, and rightly so. Thank you, Tim.