Support us with Kachingle!
June 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Every leap year, the residents who live alongside Columbia’s Rock Hill Park receive a midnight serenade from what sounds like a demented men’s a cappella group. Raucous, tone-deaf and inebriated, they stubbornly belt out the same tune every four years. It’s essentially a drinking number set to the tune of Monty Python’s famous “Lumberjack Song.” The refrain: “I’m a Derelict and I’m OK. I play all night, and I sleep all day!”
Stan Wood, Mark Sievert and Kevin Goodwin, three self-proclaimed Derelicts, recite these words laughingly as they sit around the poker table in Wood’s home. Back when their Derelict comrade Kevin McCauley wrote those words in the late ’70s, they were the group’s unofficial motto. The Derelicts lived together in a house on Locust Street as a wild gang of young brigands, united by a love of Dungeons & Dragons, motorcycles, booze and rock ’n’ roll. In Animal House-era America, they weren’t an entirely unique group, and in many ways they were simply a band of misfits trying to emulate what they thought a college fraternity should be. By now they’ve cleaned up a bit and taken on legitimate employment. The site of their old “Derelict House” now hosts the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
So much has changed in the 30 years since the group’s heyday, yet they keep reconvening at Rock Hill Park every Leap Year, for the sake of a simple placard. Nailed to a sagging bridge that lies in the heart of the park’s deep valley, it reads: “Kevin McCauley, 1960-1980.”
Only Kevin could manage such a feat. During his brief three years with the group, he became the Derelicts’ superstar member. His Dungeons & Dragons-inspired “Klutzo Kobold” comic strip received limited distribution through Columbia’s Rock Bottom Comics and tapped into a geeky, self-aware brand of college humor. In person, he was much the same — a dry wit with a laughing heart. His peers flocked to him, drawn by his humor and intelligence. He was still a cocksure teenager, but behind his occasionally brash exterior lay a prodigious talent and a yearning curiosity. Kevin never seemed to disengage from his imagination — and as a result produced a steady stream of vibrant artwork. Wood, Sievert and Goodwin can recall him furiously sketching out comics while waiting his turn during games of D&D.
“He just drew ’em straight out, with no frame,” says Sievert, who as a young artist found himself constantly eclipsed by Kevin’s efforts. “He had the picture visually in his head. He knew exactly what he was doing when he was putting down the ink.”
Even though he never made it out of his teens, Kevin’s artwork still resonates with his friends, family and acquaintances. Everyone has a favorite piece — from his Napoleonic figurines to a gold-embossed triptych that he once created for a friend. Sievert, however, remains partial to Kevin’s “Sievert the Barbarian” series, which re-envisioned the portly young man as a comic book hero.
Much of his gifts were innate, but Kevin also had an artistic pedigree. His father, Gardiner McCauley, gained a reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area’s burgeoning abstract expressionist scene during the 1960s. His wife, Nancy, was a gifted painter in her own right and a trained art historian, with interests ranging from feminist to primitive art. Together, they globe-trotted as students and teachers of the art they loved and took their three children, Kevin, Caitlin and Adam, along for the ride. Kevin was born in France, but his parents’ tireless travels took him throughout Europe and as far out as Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt. These cultural experiences expanded Kevin’s imagination. Everywhere the McCauleys’ world tour landed, Kevin would observe, paint and learn. By the time his parents settled in Columbia in 1972 to teach at Stephens College, he was already developing his own artistic voice.
Kevin’s talent “got him through a lot of situations,” says Gardiner.
Kevin’s talents received exposure when the Columbia Missourian ran a feature on him at the tender age of 14. In the story’s photo, Kevin appears sitting slightly hunched. He stares past the camera, looking impish and impenetrable.
“Whenever anyone finds out that my father teaches art, they think I get my talent from him,” Kevin says in the article, before the writer adds that Kevin “is not pleased with this explanation.”
Precocious and staunchly individualistic, Kevin was out to establish an independent agenda — the skewering of any topic he could lay his hands on. One of his first satirical endeavors was “Sgt. Furious and His Yodeling Commandoes,” a parody of America’s beloved jingoistic military comics. He also had a habit of caricaturing his friends and family, re-imagining them with his critical eye.
Although Kevin’s adventurous, anti-authoritarian streak endeared him to his buddies, his parents were a little less impressed.
“Kevin was the most trying of them all,” says his father, now a widower — Nancy died of breast cancer in 1993. “He was the oldest, pushing out on his own, pushing against [us].”
They weren’t entirely sure what to make of Dungeons & Dragons — an entirely new phenomenon in the ’70s, just beginning to develop as a tightknit geek subculture. As artists, the McCauleys appreciated the game’s emphasis on imagination and strategy, but they weren’t thrilled that Kevin was doing his imagining and strategizing for 24-hour periods. And then there were the D&D horror stories filtering in from across the nation.
“Kids got obsessed, got into this fantasy world and lived in it all the time,” Gardiner says.
Eventually, Kevin’s parents consulted neighbors whose children were also playing the game and decided to “put some curbs” on the gaming at their house. Kevin complied, and as bicentennial celebrations swept the nation, the McCauleys took a family vacation to San Francisco in the summer of 1976.
Kevin wouldn’t return to Columbia with the rest of his family. One morning, he woke up with a lump bulging out on his neck, just over the collarbone. The diagnosis, delivered by a West Coast specialist, was succinct: Kevin had Hodgkin’s Disease, a particularly brutal breed of cancer that attacks the body’s lymphatic system and decimates its ability to combat infection. Deciding that they wanted the best treatment they could manage for Kevin, his parents began periodically sending him to a world-renowned Hodgkin’s specialist at Stanford University. The first treatment phase was to surgically remove the tumor and then his spleen to facilitate a complete diagnosis. Specialists would consider the splenectomy inappropriate today, Gardiner says, but Hodgkin’s treatment was still in its earlier development stages during the 1970s. Kevin would stay at a family friend’s home in Palo Alto while he endured bouts with radiation therapy for three months. The rest of the McCauleys had to return to Columbia in the fall as the school year began. Kevin would eventually return to them diminished in weight and appearance from the treatment.
Ever the dreamer, Kevin now encountered a nightmare that no magical spell or act of heroism could reverse. His interest in fantasy literature and games had only sprung as an extension of his interest in world history. But by the time the reality of his cancer had set in, the pastoral simplicity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds or the masculine hero fantasy of D&D seemed like painfully tempting alternatives into which he could delve. Upon witnessing the wild, medieval-leaning activities of a group called the Society for Creative Anachronisms on a trip to Kansas City in early 1978, Kevin immediately leapt upon the notion of establishing a chapter in Columbia.
If D&D was an adventure confined to dice, pens and paper, SCA was the liberation of that fantasy into the physical world. Members took on medieval monikers and engaged in any number of genuine Dark Ages activities, ranging from calligraphy to brewing mead. Passing out fliers and putting his considerable charisma behind the endeavor, Kevin recruited a couple dozen people to form the motley base of his newly established chapter, “The Shire of the Standing Stones,” as a sly reference to MU’s famed columns.
Kevin’s D&D buddies didn’t need much convincing — the theatrical battles that the SCA routinely put on sold them immediately on the concept.
“What 19-year-old guy’s not going to want to go out there and beat a guy with a stick?” Wood asks.
Soon, Columbians were treated to the unfamiliar sight of young men armored up with carpet squares and Freon cans ramming into each other in Peace Park. Kevin rarely battled due to his medical ailments but was widely seen as the group’s guiding force. Redubbing himself Amleth MacAuleth, a nod to his Scottish heritage, the asthmatic, cancer-ridden Kevin became a young lord with a small army at his command in the world of SCA.
“The Society for Creative Anachronisms is a great escape,” said Kevin in a Missourian feature on the group — his second appearance in the newspaper. “We selectively recreate history without the negative side. There’s no worry of the black plague or serfdom. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate the past.”
There was no cancer there either, and for Kevin that might have been enough. SCA certainly offered him a partial distraction, but he was still in the woods when it came to his illness. For six months he underwent chemotherapy in Columbia every other week. The vibrant imagination that had always helped Kevin cope could only take him so far. His behavior, ever mischievous but rarely offensive, began to grow more erratic and self-destructive.
“He knew each month could be his last,” Wood says. “He just let go. He didn’t take things seriously.”
Kevin’s fearlessness lapsed into recklessness. By now Kevin had moved in with the Derelicts on Locust Street. He was still constantly picking up new hobbies, but these weren’t always the kind that his parents would condone. He put down Tolkien and took up reading William Powell’s Anarchist Cookbook. He handed in his 20-sided die for a set of lock picking tools. And no longer content with his Amleth MacAuleth persona, he began to forge ID cards for himself and his friends, again seeking a fresh identity.
These new pursuits peaked when Kevin, Stan and fellow Derelict Jim Lamoreaux pulled off a series of shoplifting heists at Chapter One, the bookstore where Kevin was working at the time. After Kevin’s ex-cop employer ferreted them out, they fled Columbia in a 3-week episode that took them east from mid-Missouri to Long Island (where Lamoreaux had access to a dorm room) and then all the way west to Kevin’s old hometown of Portland, Ore. Eventually, the young men contacted their parents and negotiated a settlement whereby Kevin, Stan and Jim would receive probation for their crimes and reconstitute the store’s losses. Kevin took up employment as a janitor at the MU Medical Center but would later gain another smudge on his rap sheet for forging checks.
Adam McCauley attributes his older brother’s brief criminal career to an “alienation” that stemmed from his illness coupled with the numbing boredom of living in a small Midwestern town.
“He would have grown out of the criminal thing,” Adam says. “If he’d lived, he would have been a well-known artist.”
Indeed, after he settled back down in Columbia, Kevin began to show signs that these darker episodes were behind him. His participation in Derelict activities waned, he settled into painting again and enrolled in MU as a freshman in the fall of 1979. His illness had forced him to drop out of Hickman for his senior year and complete high school through extension courses, but Kevin showed no signs of slacking and earned straight A’s in his first college semester. Healthwise, he was recovering strength, his cancer in remission. More and more he looked like the Kevin of old, ready to start afresh and explore new recesses of his immense talent. But in Kevin’s case, his prescribed cure had proven worse than the disease. The period of radiation and chemotherapy had wreaked havoc on his young body.
“It started as a cold,” says Gardiner of Kevin’s last bout with illness in 1980. “Overnight, it turned into a catastrophe.”
By this point, Kevin’s immune system was extremely vulnerable due to the loss of his spleen. Even the slightest of germ invasions was a danger to him. On February 29, 1980, Kevin suffered a massive blood infection and died of septic shock.
On his final day, his mother was at his side. Gardiner was teaching in England at the time, and upon receiving word of his son’s death immediately made the cross-Atlantic trip back home to his family. Nancy refused to stay in Columbia after Kevin’s passing. She had battled for her son through every stage of his illness, and to see him fall so suddenly was simply too much for her. In short order, she landed a job at Stanford University’s art department and left for Palo Alto, Calif. Caitlin went off to college that fall. Suddenly only Gardiner and Adam were left in the family’s house on Morningside Drive.
Adam had constantly emulated his older brother Kevin as an artist, played D&D with him and traveled to various SCA functions across the state.
It was a classic case of “little brother syndrome,” says Adam, who is now a professional illustrator. “When he died, I felt like an exposed mushroom. It was a challenge, an awakening of who I was.”
The Derelicts, meanwhile, felt the loss of their “spiritual leader” as a piercing warning siren; they had to shape up. Some did more so than others.
“Of all the Derelicts, Kevin had the most talent and potential, and yet Kevin was the one taken,” Derelict Tom Wilson says. “I guess God figured he had more use for Kevin than we did. Looking at the effects, I’d say it was a good choice. The Derelicts are now pretty successful people.”
Stan Wood, Mark Sievert, Kevin Goodwin and others continue to play D&D on Friday nights up in Hallsville, more than three decades after they first took it up. It’s just how Derelicts socialize — “like playing poker, but we’re killing dragons,” explains Wood. The group’s solidarity remains intact, thanks to the Leap Year tradition on the anniversary of Kevin’s passing. It might not have worked this way otherwise. Goodwin calls Kevin “the glue that held us together” — in death as well as life.