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IHS in the News: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
April 18, 2007

Editor's Note: As HNN reports this week, noted author and humanist Kurt Vonnegut died last Wednesday. Larry Jones, president of the Institute for Humanist Studies, was featured in two news stories about Vonnegut that appeared in the Albany, N.Y. region, where Vonnegut had many ties.

Locals Remember Kurt Vonnegut

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Fox 23 News
Apr 12, 2007 11:01 PM

Fans of influential author Kurt Vonnegut are mourning the writer's death.

The man behind classic books like "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Cat's Cradle" lived part of his life in the Capital Region.

Some Schenectady County residents still talk about the days when Vonnegut was part of their community.

The literary icon died in his Manhattan home on Wednesday night.

Just a month and a half earlier, he sent a gift to some Capital Region firefighters.

It's a framed silk screen print of a firefighting emblem with the quote, "I can't imagine a more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine."

A note on the back reads: "Dear Alplaus Firemen: I was once one of you, way back in the early 1950s and I give you this silk screen print by me as a token of my respect for all you are and do in emergencies. Cheers! Kurt Vonnegut."

Firefighters say Vonnegut volunteered for the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department for a few years and he recently contacted them out of the blue to send the gift.

"I don't know if he knew that it was time to put affairs in order kind of thing and he thought about us in light of that," said department historian Michael Sheppeck.

Vonnegut lived in Alplaus for a few years after the end of World War II.

He lived in a home on Hill Street.

The building still stands but neighbors say it's undergone a few additions over the years.

The family living in the home now showed us the side room where they believe Vonnegut slept and they showed us the old deed bearing Vonnegut's signature from when he and his wife sold the house in 1951.

The author also did public relations for General Electric in Schenectady; he reportedly hated the job.

Vonnegut was known for his sense of humor and even had a cameo in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield film "Back to School."

Also known for his skepticism and free thinking, Vonnegut became a member of the humanist movement.

President of Albany's Institute for Humanist Studies Larry Jones says he met the author once in 2005.

"We set up a date to meet him for dinner in a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan close to where he lived," Jones told FOX23 News.

That dinner meeting never happened.

Both men were at the restaurant but they ate separately, each of them wondering why the other one hadn't shown up.

"It turned out that he and his wife were sitting about five tables away from us in this rather dimly lighted restaurant," Jones said.

He and Vonnegut eventually did meet over lunch and Jones describes the writer as congenial and funny.

"You never knew whether he was pulling your leg or not. He could deliver a joke with a poker face," he said.

The members of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department say they typically assist with the funeral services of past members however, they've heard Vonnegut's ceremony will be a small one for family only.

Kurt Vonnegut was 84 years old.

Ties to the Capital Region, including a scientist brother, influenced the late Kurt Vonnegut's fantastic world

Albany Times Union
First published: Friday, April 13, 2007

When Kurt Vonnegut's mercurial recurring character and alter ego, Kilgore Trout, took his own life in 2004 by drinking Drano, the character did it in Cohoes. He killed himself under the weight of despair from what Vonnegut called the "neo-con era" and the growing weaknesses of humankind.

While Vonnegut wrote about gloom, disaster and outright cataclysm, his work also had an undercurrent of wonder and optimism at the universe around him. It was that dichotomy that brought him his legions of fans.

Vonnegut, who worked for General Electric in Schenectady, often referenced local cities and landmarks in his work. Vonnegut died Wednesday at the age of 84. On Thursday, members of the local literary and humanist communities reflected on his impact on 20th-century literature and philosophy.

"He had a point of view on the universe that was original and dynamic and funny and insightful and full of high moral dudgeon at the behavior of the human race," said local Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy.

Vonnegut's many novels, short stories, essays and plays contained elements of social commentary, science fiction and autobiography. He drew much of his early science fiction inspiration from his days as a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady.

He worked for the engineering giant from 1947 to 1950. "Player Piano," with its futuristic vision of corporate control and images of vast machinery, is a thinly veiled reference to the Electric City at its postwar zenith. In an interview earlier this year on National Public Radio, Vonnegut called the GE of the late 1940s, "American industry at its best," producing everything from turbines to insulators to water wheels.

"The world needed these things, and General Electric was good at it," said Vonnegut. "After the Second World War, the whole world had been knocked down, and we were going to have to rebuild it."

It was at GE that Vonnegut began to seriously write. After he left the company, his literary career moved into full swing. Yet, he refused to take himself too seriously.

"I had a big family," he said during the NPR interview. "I had to write every day to pay the damn bills."

Vonnegut kept close ties to the area through his brother Bernard, a GE scientist and University at Albany professor who lived in Schenectady most of his life. Bernard died in 1997.

Bernard Vonnegut invented a cloud seeding technique that employs silver iodine. Experiments such as these later popped up in his younger brother's writing, said David Fitzjarrald, a research associate at UAlbany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Center who worked with the elder Vonnegut.

"In 'Cat's Cradle' there is this ice-nine. All the water in the world would congeal if ice-nine touched it," said Fitzjarrald. "That is clearly a reference to the silver iodine his brother came up with."

Donald Faulkner, director of the New York State Writers Institute and associate professor of English at UAlbany, said one of Bernard's experiments reputedly involved trying to get lightning to move from the ground to the sky.

"All the fantastical ideas that Kurt would be writing about, those were the experiments that Bernie was working on," he said.

The writer was also a volunteer firefighter for the Alplaus Fire Department in Glenville. His compassionate view of volunteer emergency service workers was the basis of his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater."

Kennedy first met Vonnegut on Cape Cod in the 1970s and spent several hours interviewing him for an article that was never published. In 2001, he introduced Vonnegut when the "Slaughterhouse Five" scribe was designated state author by a Writers Institute panel.

"He was probably the greatest of our contemporary humorists," said Kennedy. At the induction ceremony "he gave a lecture on literature with a blackboard. It was one of the funniest things I'd seen in my life."

The sardonic edge that permeated Vonnegut's work came not only from major traumas such as his mother's suicide and his witnessing of the 1945 bombing of Dresden, Germany, while a prisoner of war, but also from keeping a close watch on politics and current events. The exhilaration came from his deep love of humanity.

"He was a man who did truly believe in what humans could do if they didn't screw it up," said Faulkner. "A lot of the time he did talk about the faults and foibles of humans but in the end, he thought the three pounds of gray matter on top of people's heads could actually make a difference."

Vonnegut's great-grandfather was the first president of the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis and Vonnegut maintained the family legacy of eschewing religious dogma in favor of the tenets of humanism, a philosophy that emphasizes science, reason and human empathy while shunning belief in gods, the supernatural and life after death. In 1992, he was named the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, succeeding the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Vonnegut was known for speaking out in favor of humanism. In an interview with Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," he derided the idea of intelligent design, saying it had led to "giraffes and hippopotami and the clap."

Larry Jones, the president of Albany's Institute for Humanist Studies had lunch with Vonnegut about two years ago and said it degenerated into an absurd afternoon.

"He's got a weird sense of humor," said Jones. "You never know if he's pulling your leg or not. He's got a complete poker face."

Vonnegut's writing brought many into the humanist movement, he said.

"He was a lifelong humanist but maybe he didn't know it," said Jones. "As soon as he heard about humanism, he recognized it was his world view."

Vonnegut fictionalized his experiences in Dresden in "Slaughterhouse Five," which was released at the height of the Vietnam War. Since then, he has become must reading for generations of readers searching for philosophical enlightenment.

When Vonnegut was appointed state writer "people just wanted to look at him and shake his hand as if he were some iconic statue," said Faulkner. "I kept thinking 'This is what it was like to hang out with Mark Twain. He really is like Mark Twain.' "

In the NPR interview, Vonnegut said he knew he was going to die soon, but that his books assured that he would continue to make noise into the future.

"Since I'm completely in print, I'm still talking my fool head off," he said.

Furfaro can be reached at 454-5097 or by e-mail at

Reprinted by permission of the Times Union. Re-use rights may not be assigned to a third party without prior written permission of the Times Union.

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