My Aunt Emma once said that her son Kenny—I seldom use his adult name, Ken—and I were “peas of a pod.” She marveled at how the two of us, pre-teens at the time, were “scatterbrains” who were “never in a hurry.” Kenny’s dad was always amused by how much we could eat in one meal, while only one of us would become large (I only grew tall). Kenny was much like his father, and our grandfather, with their quick wit. They were all naturally funny. Like Yogi Berra, they couldn’t help it; their brains were just wired to make people laugh.
I once asked Kenny’s dad when he would be coming home from college. It was late spring and I thought the semester should be ending. “Oh hell,” my uncle said, “He’ll look around one day and see that no one is on campus, and then he will come home.” He told me once that Kenny went to college for just two terms, “Nixon’s and Carter’s.” Kenny, he said, was “studying to be an astronaut…down there in Oxford just taking up space.” That would describe my first couple of years in college. My aunt and uncle, both of whom died in their late 60’s, were proud of their son and would have been pleased to see Kenny’s work ethic and success in business.
An outstanding high school football player, Kenny earned an athletic scholarship to Ole Miss in the early seventies. He had met Archie Manning when the Ole Miss star quarterback was in Nashville to speak at the annual Banquet of Champions, an event honoring local high school championship teams. I had attended that banquet a few years earlier with my basketball team when Steve Spurrier, a recent Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida, was the guest speaker.
Kenny called me last Friday night on his way home from work, and we had a nice long chat. We hadn’t talked since the summer. We continued our conversation as he sat in his pickup outside his house, and I was sitting in my office. It was the end of a long workday for both of us. It was a rare event, and a delightful one for me, having an extended phone conversation that he initiated.
We reminisced about the days when his father, an Andy Griffith type sheriff, was an icon in a town that was much like Mayberry in the early sixties. Kenny’s family lived on the main level of the old jailhouse, downstairs from the prisoners. When the new prison was built next door, Kenny and I slept one night in the large open bay room upstairs where there were plenty of bunk beds to choose from. We raised a window in the morning and talked to the prisoners across the alley who were also on the second floor. They all had nicknames. I remember Grasshopper.
Kenny was too young, and our conversation was too fresh, for me to believe what my brother called to tell me early Sunday morning, about forty hours later. Kenny had slipped away from us early that morning, much like his dad had slipped away from my dad, just hours after they had played golf together. A heart attack, my brother said. We will bury Ken Huff tomorrow, but the gift of his humor, and the family stories he enjoyed sharing, will not be buried with him.