I lost a friend this week. Well, I call him a friend, although we had an unusual relationship.
In large part, he began as a source for my book, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford. The book is about his sister, Sara Jane Moore, the middle-age mother who shot at President Gerald Ford in 1975 in front of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
My friend and Sara Jane’s brother, Olaf “Skip” Kahn, died from heart failure. He had a big heart, so it must have been one hell of a heart attack to bring him down. I only met Skip and his wife Carol in person once. They drove 200 miles to see me for my book launch in Charleston, WV.
Me and Sara Jane
I met Sara Jane after she shot at Ford. She was about to be sentenced and she wrote to me at the newspaper I was working for in Los Angeles. I never knew anything about her real family even after communicating with her for 30 years while she was incarcerated.
It was during one of my visits with her that she suggested it was time to write her book. I had just been laid off as an analyst at a technology advising company and it seemed like a good project since I thought I had a good head start after all those years.
It turned out all I had was Sara’s fantasy life, not the real story and she wasn’t going to give it to me. I was on my own with no help from her to find out the truth behind this mysterious woman.
That’s how Skip came into my life. After hours of digging and a trip to Sara Jane’s hometown and crashing her high-school reunion, I finally learned of this large family she came from, including the oldest of her three brothers, Skip.
From the first time I spoke with him on the phone he was gracious, warm and very forthcoming. He became the source of intimate information about Sara Jane’s life, her home, her early years, her parents, siblings, school and activities growing up in Charleston, West Virginia in the 1930’s depression.
His wife, Carol, also added important detail about their relationship with the rest of the family during their early years of marriage.
Skip the “Family Spokesman”
Skip gathered information from his other two brothers for me, as he was elected to be the “family spokesman.” His keen eye, memory and details fleshed out the day-to-day life of a somewhat rural family just on the outskirts of town. Their home was filled with music and art as both parents were concert musicians. All the children played an instrument and it wasn’t unusual for evenings to hear piano and violin coming from their home.
The children and families were tight-knit and Sara’s mother was the matron. “Ruth was the person to go to if you had a problem, no matter who you were,” according to Bob Turkelson, a friend and neighbor of the Kahn’s.
Skip’s told me a story about his sister that troubled him for a long time:
“While Sara Jane was pregnant with her third child, she had an unannounced visitor. On a warm day late in the spring of 1954, Sara Jane answered a knock at her apartment door. A tall, handsome air force lieutenant whom she didn’t recognize stood in front of her. At first, she thought he was a friend of her husband’s, but then she saw a funny and somewhat familiar grin on his face.
‘Hey, Sis, don’t you know your own brother?’ It was Skip, stopping by for a surprise visit, hoping to meet Syd and the kids. After two days he had a pretty good picture of Sara Jane’s life. She seemed to be taking care of the family, Skip told me. Sydney Jr. and Janet were clean and neat; but Sara Jane seemed distant from them. “There was just something odd, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was.”
It was stories like this and more that filled my book with vivid and troubling background of Sara’s personality and relationships with her children and family. Skip told me about the time his brother, Dana, went to pick up Sara and her three children at the airport in Columbus, Ohio.
“The plane landed just before sunset, and Dana stood watching the ground crew roll a staircase up to the door just behind the gleaming wings. The door opened, and the first of a hundred passengers began to deplane. He said he watched them walk off, one after the other, into the waiting arms of friends and relatives.
Finally, after all of the other passengers had left, little Sydney Jr., four years old, carefully walked down the steps, holding tight to the railing with one hand and grasping the hand of his three-year-old sister, Janet, in the other. Right behind him was a stewardess, holding nine-month-old baby Christopher in her arms. Dana watched, puzzled. Sara Jane was not with them.”
I am eternally grateful to Skip and his family for his generous heart and for being a truly classy guy. Skip and I didn’t agree on politics, but he was never disagreeable. I think he got a kick out of getting me riled up. I can just see him thinking about how I’ll react to one of his emails. He knew me and I’m sure it gave him a chuckle. I can hear him now, “Just wait till Geri gets this one!”
You got me, Skip. I’m going to miss your notes. And I already miss you.