|A Celebration of the Life of Conrad Hirsh
(Addis Ababa 6466)
|December 5, 1999 at the home of Conrad's friend, Cynthia Moss in Kenya
The Celebration of Conrad held on December 5 was inspiring, poignant, joyous and sad, but ultimately, unexpectedly uplifting; everything it should have been and more. It was a fitting and glorious farewell to Conrad.
We held the event at our house, on the verandah and in the garden that Conrad loved so much. The rains had been generous and the garden was lush and bright green, full of new shoots, flowers and singing birds. People arrived from far and wide and in the end over 100 attended. His older brother Oliver came from Denmark; his best friend, Carlo, two other friends, Maurizio and Amy, and Conrad's son Yohannes, came from Ethiopia; a fellow boatman flew in from Denver; another friend came all the way from Australia; more friends came from Tanzania and Uganda. Others we know were here in spirit.
I had only arrived back in Kenya on December 2. Charlotte and my wonderful assistant Holly had done everything to organize all the logistics plus the food and drink. Guests brought food as well and we had heaving tables of delights. My job was to organize and conduct the program, a daunting responsibility, but with the help of Conrad's friends, it turned out to be singularly successful. The speakers and the performers hit just the right notes.
Instead of trying to describe what was said, I am going to send you the text for those talks that were written out along with inserts I added today.
Conrad was not a religious man, but I know that some of you are spiritual. To give everyone a chance to honor Conrad in their own way, can we have a minute of silence for a prayer or a memory of Conrad, or perhaps a recollection of something wonderful you have seen in Africa that Conrad would have loved.
1 minute silence.
Now I would like to introduce some of the people who have made a special trip to Kenya just for this day.
First, members of Conrad's family: his older brother Oliver who has come from Denmark and Conrad's son Yohannes, who has come from Ethiopia. Also from Ethiopia, Conrad's close friend of many, many years, Carlo Iori. And two other good friends from Ethiopia: Maurizio Melloni and Amy Horton. Making the long journey from Denver, Colorado, Conrad's fellow boatman who ran many a wild river with him, Gary Lemmer. I also see some friends from Tanzania: Wes Krause and Melly Reuling who shared a love of Kilimanjaro with Conrad.
Conrad was a man of the bush, rivers and mountains and thus he was not a formal person, so I don't want this event to be formal or somber. Nevertheless, we have planned a program to allow others to express themselves.
I would like to turn the next part over to Conrad's brother Oliver.
[Oliver said a few lovely words and then played an exquisite piece of 16th century music on the beautiful 300-year-old viola da gamba that he brought with him from Denmark. It is such a precious instrument that it, "Miss Viola," had her own seat on the plane journey. Oliver is a master and the music was rich and evocative.]
[Next I introduced Carlo who spoke of his long friendship with Conrad which went back to the 1970s in Ethiopia. Carlo spoke about Conrad as a math professor at the University of Addis Ababa and of the early Omo River trips they ran together. It gave many of us a new perspective on the Conrad of the early days. We could also see, as Carlo said himself, that he loved Conrad like a brother.]
[Next, Mike Rainy, who had been a year behind Conrad at Reed College, gave us some insights and memories of college days. He emphasized particularly what a brave and unusual departure it was for Conrad to forsake the academic life that was expected of him to join the Peace Corps and eventually be a river runner. Mike clearly understood and greatly respected Conrad for living the life he did.]
[Next I asked my oldest friend here in Kenya, Sandy Price, to read out excerpts from some of the condolence messages that I have received. I knew could not read them myself without breaking down. Below is what she read:]
I'd like to start with the introduction to the wonderful booklet that Conrad's brother Ethan produced and sent out for this event. It's full of delightful pictures of Conrad from the time he was a small boy. There may not be enough copies to go around so please share them amongst you.
These are Ethan's words: I'm sorry I can't be with you in person as you celebrate memories of my brother. I join you instead through this selection of images that capture a few aspects of his life different ages, places and pursuitsÛand through some brief memories of my own. What they reveal are certain traits that developed over the course of his life and flowed through everything he did. They're the traits that friends, clients and associates all have commented on since October 7 when thinking of how Conrad affected their lives: A zest for adventure. A sharp intellectÖ Enduring friendshipÖ Honesty in opinionsÖ And a unique energy.
Ethan then goes on with some of the details of Conrad's very interesting life. At the end he writes, My family joins me in saying thank you, all, for being part of Conrad's life, and for participating in this memorial celebration.
Many touching messages of condolence have been sent over the last weeks. One common theme especially from his men friends is that Conrad lived his life the way he wanted to and many were envious of him. I would like to read a few excerpts from these letters.
This is from Richard Bangs, one of the co-founders of Sobek, the company Conrad was associated with for much of his career: He touched so many lives and made them better for itÖhe was an inspiration, a model for living life to its fullestÖhe had a code that I always admired, and wanted to make my own. He made the world richer; and he made my life, and those in Sobek who knew him, finer and deeperÖI will miss him.
From a friend in Ethiopia: Enviably, Conrad was able to spend most of his life being where he wanted to be, doing what he loved to doÖand doing it so well. His life imparts the legacy of a good man who tirelessly dared to challenge the oddsÖand his name will forever be identified as the Great Adventurer who shared the excitement of roaring rivers he loved and knew like the back of his hand. A man so well-remembered in so many countries to so very many people whom he touched. We only regret not taking full advantage of every opportunity to know him better. Conrad's passing is a loss to this world and we shall miss him.
From a friend in Kenya who went on one of his trips: What can I say? The news came to me on a faceless computer console in a grey office in rainy Brussels. No other situation could be further from my memories of ConradÖsun tanned & relaxed in the bright Malagasy sunshine, toes dipping in the clouded limestone pools, eyes twinkling & a half smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
From a good friend in America with whom Conrad corresponded for many years:
From another old friend in America: Although it's easy to think that Conrad leaving so early is unfair, the truth is that's something we can't control. What we can control is how we live life, and Conrad did that fully and well, with lasting friendships and kindness, and a passion for explorationÖI'm sure a lot of people have said this, but the spirit with which Conrad handled his illness was inspiring, and a testament to who he was. To be able to handle such adversity with good humor, optimism and determination is something remarkable.
This final one is from a client: I met Conrad last year in Madagascar. I went with him and a few other people down the Mahavavy for a first descent. To watch him in the bush, sighting lemurs and spotting birds, was more magical than seeing them with my own eyes. Conrad would just light up and one could feel his pure joy of experiencing the moment. And that's when his silence spoke a thousand words. He truly was a part of nature.
[The final speaker was Gary Lemmer, who had run rivers with Conrad in both Ethiopia and Madagascar. I will type out his notes below:]
When I first fell in love with rivers at my first exposure in California, in 1981, I had no idea where that love and the rivers themselves would take me. My life had been changed. I started to move about the planet sharing with others the rivers of the world. After two seasons on the Zambezi I was called to work in Ethiopia and the Omo River. I had thought I had seen some things and met some peopleÛthere I met Conrad HirshÛmy life changed forever.
So at home in the chaos of Addis Ababa. The world of international river guides can be one of exposure to some with less than the best intentions; infighting, egos and macho behavior. But here was a man of a different stripe. Conrad was a leader of quiet strength and a compelling nature.
Here was a master in the bush with a depth of knowledge beyond anything I had seen, without the ego that so often is present in such people.
Five days into our first Omo trip a couple of clients who had been riding in Conrad's boat asked me what was wrong with him. "What do you mean?"
"Well we know he must know a lot about the region, birds and all but he didn't tell us anything." I thought for a moment and asked, "Did you think to ask him a question?" Conrad was not one to spoon feed people, but most willing to share with those who truly cared to know. At once a mentor and a sageÛa leader of legendary knowledge, yet at the same time the gaiety in his face when he launched himself off a cliff into a clear river pool also told of his true nature.
Today in Flagstaff, Arizona, on the other side of the planet, a like group of friends are gathering to honor Conrad with ingera, stories and some tears. We are together, we people who share deeply.
I can only speak for myself, but I have only to look around, to think back, to remember, and I know that the lives of so many have been deeply touched.
The next turning of the river, the next sound from the bush, the next people to be encountered, all and always held Conrad in their moment, their magic. I am sure that this continues to be the case as it always will.
[Gary then played and sang the perfect song for Conrad, one that he had often requested when Gary played around the fire on those magical river nights. I am typing out some of the verses so that you can see why it was so appropriate. And I have to add that Gary has a truly beautiful voice, which made the song all the more poignant. I don't think a single eye amongst the 204 was dry.]
"In Johnny's Garden" There's a place I can get to, where I'm safe from these city blues And it's green and it's quiet, only trouble was I had to buy it.
I'll do anything I've got to do, cut my hair and shine my shoes Keep on singing the blues if I can stay here, in Johnny's Garden.
As the swift bird flies above the grasses, dipping now and then, to take his breakfast Thus I come and go, and thus I travel, I can watch that bird and unravel.
With his love and his caring, well he puts his life into beauty sharing And his children, they're his flowers and they give me peace in quite hours
I'll do anything I've got to do, cut my hair, shine my river shoes Keep on singing the blues, if I can stay here, in Johnny's Garden.
[I then thanked Charlotte for all that she had done to make the day possible. I ended by asking people to enjoy themselves. That's what Conrad would have wanted.
And we did enjoy ourselves. The food was great, the drink was plentiful, the house and garden were full of friends and family. The event had started at 11:00am, we went on until after 10 at night, eleven wonderful hours of celebrating Conrad. He should have been there too, maybe he was.