A  Friendship Mission

Photography by Cheryl Gerber

Cheryl Gerber had seen him for years, a homeless man, lean, and brown from the sun, meandering along the sidewalks of the Esplanade, a leafy New Orleans street dotted with 200-year-old mansions. A professional photographer, Gerber liked walking in the area looking for subjects. It was on one of those outings that she spotted the man sitting on the steps of a high-rise office building. He appeared to be talking to the ground as businesspeople on all sides of him walked past paying no notice. “There was something about him that was different,” Gerber says. She snapped a photograph.

She began noticing the man more often and couldn’t shake the feeling that he had an interesting backstory. “It seemed to me like he might be a writer. I don’t know why I thought that—maybe it was the beard, some kind of Hemingway look,” Gerber says. Despite her curiosity, she was wary about speaking to him. “He seemed unapproachable, and angry.”

She was walking her dog one April evening two years ago when she saw him lying in his sleeping bag scribbling in a notebook. Emboldened, she walked up to him and said, “Hi, are you a writer?” The man looked up with a brightness she hadn’t seen before and answered yes. 

They talked for almost an hour. “He told me he went to Stanford. He told me a lot of things that I didn’t believe, given his condition, but the more we talked, the more I realized he was definitely well educated,” Gerber recalls. 

And then, a clue: She found a reference in the Stanford Daily to a Kevin Bennett as the winner of a poetry prize. Could that be him?

His name was Kevin Bennett. Gerber went home and spent the next several hours Googling that name, cross-referencing it with Stanford and every other piece of information she could remember from the conversation. “It was 3 in the morning, and I had to work the next day, but I was so wound up wanting to know more about who he was.” 

And then, a clue: She found a reference in the Stanford Daily to a Kevin Bennett as the winner of a poetry prize. Could that be him? She kept digging and came across a photograph on a website that showed Bennett and three of his friends on vacation in 1995. One of the men in the photograph was identified as John Coyle. By now, Gerber was fairly certain that the Kevin Bennett living on the streets of New Orleans and the Stanford poet were the same person. 

Sitting there at her computer in the middle of the night, Gerber pondered what to do next. “Something made me think that there were people out there who would want to know where he was,” she says. “But at the same time, what if he didn’t want to be found? You just don’t know if people have decided to disappear from society.”

 A search for Coyle turned up an article he had written about a program he was producing “paying homage to my lost friend” whom he described as “poet laureate” at his alma mater. Perhaps, Gerber thought, he doesn’t know where Kevin Bennett is now.

At 5:46 a.m., with the first streaks of dawn appearing, Gerber posted a message on Facebook. “I haven’t been able to sleep a wink,” she wrote, and proceeded to unspool the details of her encounter with Bennett. She found Coyle on Facebook’s Messenger app and sent him a note: “Do you know a man named Kevin Bennett?”

Coyle saw the message later that morning and quickly typed out a reply: “Holy shit! Are you kidding me? We’ve been looking for him for 13 years.” 

After so many years of fruitless searching, John Coyle, ’90, had begun to make room for the possibility that his best friend was dead.

Coyle and Bennett had known each other since their middle and high school days in Michigan, when they competed against each other in speed skating. They had separately migrated to Stanford, where they reunited and became inseparable. “We were both relatively poor Midwesterners at a school with a lot of wealthy Californians and some East Coasters. We felt like we didn’t really fit in very well in the beginning,” Coyle says.

Bennett, ’90, had been best man at Coyle’s wedding and an occasional housemate over the years, but Coyle hadn’t spoken with him since receiving a phone call from a jail in Louisiana in 2006. Bennett, who had been in and out of treatment facilities for mental illness, was “going off the rails,” Coyle says, spinning out strange stories about marrying several women who were living in his head. “It was very disorienting.” 

The two later exchanged a couple of emails, and then the line went dead. Despite Coyle’s efforts to resuscitate communication, there was nothing but silence from the other end. Worried that something terrible might have happened, Coyle reached out to everyone who might know where Bennett was and how he was doing, but couldn’t locate him. 

Bennett’s disappearance alarmed not just Coyle but also a coterie of Stanford friends that included John Wesseling, ’90, Sam Steidl, ’91, Andrew von Nordenflycht, ’91, and Perry Friedman, ’90, MA ’91, as well as Pauline (Sanchez) Steinhoffer, ’91, Bennett’s onetime girlfriend. 

Steinhoffer first met Bennett outside the dining hall at Lagunita when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore in the fall of 1987. She was captivated by his manner and appearance—he wore his blond hair spiked à la ’80s rock star Billy Idol and was often seen in a trench coat that billowed out behind him like a cape. “He made an impression,” Steinhoffer says. “If you asked anybody who was on campus during that time and described him, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that guy.’ ” Soon, she and Bennett were dating.

Coyle and Bennett were infamous for the sort of mischief that drives student deans nuts. Two of their favorite activities were exploring the network of steam tunnels that runs under the campus and climbing onto rooftops. “We managed to get on almost every building on campus,” Coyle says. “We weren’t drinkers, so when everybody else was going to parties, we would wander around campus looking for ways to get in trouble.” 

Snapshots in the Stanford stadium and in a dorm hallway.BACK IN THE DAY: The crew—Bennett, Wesseling, Coyle, Friedman and Steidl—joined up for the 1990 graduation. Right, Bennett, Coyle and Steinhoffer before their dorm’s semi-formal in 1987. (Photos, from left: Pauline Steinhoffer, ’91; Cathi Dimond Vergin, ’91)

 

Steinhoffer, who marveled at the pair’s audacity, occasionally tagged along on their adventures. “I can tell you that I have sat on the very tip-top of History Corner roof,” she says, laughing. 

Although they were never “officially arrested,” Coyle says, he and Bennett had eight police incidents on their campus record that had to be reconciled before they could graduate. “The police knew us on a first-name basis.” 

To hear Coyle describe these shenanigans, one might assume he and Bennett were derelict students. In fact, after a slow start, they both thrived academically. And it was Bennett, Coyle says, “who taught me how to write.” Despairing at his mediocre marks in written work, Coyle, who majored in engineering–product design,  once noticed a paper from one of Bennett’s classes sitting in his room. “At the top it said ‘A++,’ ” Coyle recalls. “I was thinking, ‘How do you get A++?’ ”

When he asked Bennett for his secret, his friend replied: “I just write what I want.” A light went on for Coyle, who abandoned his efforts to follow what he imagined to be the professor’s script and began to write with a new freedom. Today, he is the author of three books on design thinking. 

The adjective commonly used to describe Bennett during those days is brilliant. Wesseling, now a neuroscientist living in Spain, remembers him that way. He was indeed brilliant, with a deep and clever mind. And funny. And fun to be around.

“The way he used language,” Steinhoffer says. “It was almost hypnotizing listening to him.”

As Bennett remembers it, Stanford nourished his intellect and inspired him to pursue the life of a writer. English professor W.S. Di Piero was especially influential. “He told me I’d be a poet,” Bennett recalls. As if to validate it, Bennett won the 1991 University and College Poets Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

Steinhoffer doesn’t recollect any evidence of mental illness during the first year of her relationship with Bennett, but noted that something had changed when she returned for her sophomore year. “He had gone to a dark place,” she says. “I was 19 years old and didn’t know how to deal with that.” 

After the couple broke up, “I felt so much guilt,” Steinhoffer says. “It took me years to figure out that Kevin’s challenges weren’t my fault.”

By his senior year, Bennett’s illness was serious enough that he had difficulty completing some of his courses on time. As a result of that and other circumstances, he didn’t complete his degree until 1994. 

Coyle had continued competitive speed skating throughout his time at Stanford, and two weeks after his graduation in 1990 he moved into the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., with the rest of the U.S. national team. And for the next seven years, that was his life. In the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Coyle won a silver medal as part of the men’s 5,000-meter relay.

Bennett, meanwhile, accepted a job as a technical writer at Dow Chemical and later became a consultant for the company. He was making “vast amounts of money,” he says, but working 80-hour weeks, which left no time for personal writing. It was a good professional experience, but ultimately unfulfilling. “It hit me one day that I came out of Stanford intending to be a writer. I’m a writer, that’s what I am.”

By 1997, Coyle and Bennett were back together, sharing a house in Milwaukee while Coyle trained for the upcoming Winter Olympics. But when he did not make the team, Coyle moved to Phoenix with his fiancée. Bennett headed to Seattle. Contact between the two became less frequent, but Bennett was always there for the milestone moments, serving as best man at Coyle’s wedding in 1998, and visiting for the birth of Coyle’s daughter, Katelina, in 2001. 

It was around that time that Bennett gravitated to New Orleans, drawn by an invitation to participate in a writing program. He was immediately smitten with the place. For someone attracted to the bohemian mien of an artist working out of a café, enchanted by the sights and sounds of an exotic setting, it was a perfect fit. “I love this city,” he says, dropping his voice for emphasis. “The architecture, the gas lamps with the crowns of fire. I love the people here; they’re very warm. You can talk to anyone.”

‘It hit me one day that I came out of Stanford intending to be a writer. I’m a writer, that’s what I am.’

He was hired as a parish administrator at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church and had an apartment near the French Quarter. Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. Vast areas of New Orleans were flooded. Bennett lived in the Bywater, one of the few areas of the 9th Ward to escape major flooding, but amid the tumult of the event, he lost everything he owned. 

For the next few months, Bennett stayed at the home of St. Anna’s rector, Father William Terry, in Abita Springs, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans. “Kevin was considered part of our family even before Katrina,” Terry says. “Katrina galvanized that relationship with long conversations over many cups of coffee on the front porch.” When he returned to New Orleans in December of that year, Bennett moved into the home of a St. Anna’s parishioner. But when that didn’t work out, Bennett “spiraled into homelessness,” says Terry. 

For his part, Bennett never uses the term homeless but instead refers to his time on the streets as “living outside.” He had qualified for $1,137 in monthly disability benefits from Social Security, but the government had garnished $270 of it each month to pay off outstanding student loans. That didn’t leave enough to rent an apartment and also pay for other essentials, he says. 

Being unhoused led to other problems. Bennett’s access to medication became more sporadic and his illness shadowed him, occasionally resulting in erratic behavior and turbulent encounters. His call to Coyle from the jail followed his arrest for threatening homeowners whose porch he had slept on to escape the rain.

For a while, Bennett had a phone and a Facebook account, and he and Coyle exchanged a few online messages following Bennett’s arrest. And then, nothing. “The phone number didn’t work anymore,” Coyle says. 

Bennett had gone silent before, Perry Friedman says, but he always popped back up and was OK. This time, though, when nobody heard from him after his last note to Coyle, worries about his welfare intensified. “We were afraid the worst had happened,” Friedman says. 

Months passed, and then years, and Coyle kept looking, occasionally getting a whiff of a clue. “Somebody who worked at a restaurant in Baton Rouge said they saw somebody that sounded like Kevin,” Coyle says. But there was never anything definitive. 

Friedman’s wife, Robyn, recalls the pain she heard in Friedman’s and Coyle’s voices when they talked about Bennett’s disappearance. “It was kind of an open wound; there hadn’t been any closure,” she says. 

Finally, although his determination to find his old friend never wavered, Coyle says resignation began to replace hope. He and Steinhoffer occasionally caught themselves referring to Bennett in the past tense. But there hadn’t been a funeral, so Coyle assumed that meant there was still a chance he might find Bennett. Conversations began about hiring a private investigator. 

Then, out of nowhere, Cheryl Gerber dropped her Facebook bomb. After Coyle replied to her message, the two spoke on the phone. Steinhoffer was also on the call. “Pauline was crying, John was crying, everyone was crying,” Gerber recalls.

“It was such a shock and such a relief,” Steinhoffer says. “I was pretty convinced that Kevin was no longer with us.” 

After such a long time, hearing that Bennett had been found “sort of overwhelmed me,” Coyle says. “All of the anxiety, fear, care, love, just washed to the surface.” The next morning, he and his daughter were on a plane headed to New Orleans. 

Soon, everyone in the Stanford posse knew that Bennett had resurfaced. “My first reaction was relief, that he was alive. My second one was fear,” Friedman says. “There were lots of ways it could’ve gone wrong—either we could never find him again, or if John showed up he would have nothing to do with him.”

Coyle arranged to meet Gerber at Port of Call, a burger joint on the Esplanade between Dauphine and Bourbon streets where she had spoken with Bennett. As they were waiting in line for dinner, Coyle struck up a conversation with a security guard who, it turned out, was familiar with Bennett. “I see him all the time,” he said to Coyle. Then he pointed to a section of shrubs a few yards away. “He keeps a sleeping bag right over there.”

Coyle walked over to the shrubs, pushed aside the greenery, and there on the ground was a black sleeping bag and pillow. For Coyle, it was a moment of profound relief—here was something his friend owned, proof of life. Coyle assumed this was a place to which Bennett would return, so the next day he filled a small backpack with items meant to validate his identity—a Stanford sweatshirt, a note with his phone number, and a trophy from his speed skating days—and stuffed it inside the sleeping bag.

Gerber had some additional intel about Bennett’s whereabouts in recent days and some of the places he frequented. With those leads, Coyle and Katelina began combing the streets.

For two days they searched without a sign. According to Coyle’s Fitbit, they walked 50 miles in 48 hours. At times Coyle journeyed out on his own, visiting “every single place I would normally avoid”—sketchy-looking alleyways, homeless encampments, freeway underpasses. After receiving a tip that Bennett had been seen at the Canal Street Underpass, Coyle went to check it out. “So, I’m walking through this tent city at midnight seeing people lighting up whatever sort of drugs they had, and thinking, ‘I would never choose to be here, but how else can I find him?’ ”

Coyle learned later that Bennett had gone to a group home to escape the heavy rains that had descended on New Orleans just before Coyle’s arrival in the city. But at the time, he and Katelina had to fly home without having found his friend, and Coyle was crestfallen. “Cheryl hadn’t seen him; we didn’t know where he was,” he says. 

Two weeks passed. Then Gerber contacted Coyle again: She had seen Bennett and described to him her outreach to Coyle, but Bennett was antagonistic and didn’t believe her. “It was obvious he didn’t trust me; he thought I was trying to trick him by using John’s name,” Gerber recalls. At that point, Coyle wasn’t sure he would make a return visit. “I didn’t want to fly out there if he didn’t want to see me,” he says.

But a couple of days later Gerber had a better conversation with Bennett, who was more composed. He apologized for his earlier behavior and listened as Gerber related Coyle’s efforts to find him. When she called Coyle this time, it was with better news: “He really wants to see you.”

“Tell him I’ll be there tomorrow,” Coyle replied.

The next morning Gerber relayed the message to Bennett, who was hanging out in the Neutral Ground, a tree-lined median that divides the Esplanade. “I’ll wait right here,” he said. 

And that he did. For almost eight hours, Bennett stayed near that spot, waiting and watching for Coyle. Late afternoon, Coyle arrived. He and Gerber went to the place where Bennett had slept, expecting to find him, but Bennett wasn’t there. Then they spied Bennett half a block away, walking toward them. Bennett saw Coyle, hesitated a moment, “and he just came running,” Coyle recalls. 

A series of three snapshots showing Bennet and Coyle approaching each other on the street, then hugging.

Gerber chokes up at the memory. “They literally stopped traffic,” she says. Bennett and Coyle sprinted toward each other and met in the middle of the street for a hug 13 years overdue. 

“I love you, John,” Bennett said. “I’ve missed you.” 

That first night, they slept outside. Coyle says he wanted to steer Bennett back to a more stable, safe situation, but first he and his friend needed to reconnect. He’d come prepared with a sleeping bag, and after Bennett rejected his gentle suggestion to go to a hotel, Coyle threw it down next to Bennett’s beneath a tree on the Neutral  Ground. Gerber visited them around midnight. “They were smoking cigars and listening to Def Leppard.”

It didn’t take long for Bennett’s friends to mobilize, pouring donations into a GoFundMe site that Coyle established. Moreover, Gerber’s Facebook posts had gone viral, attracting the attention of people all over New Orleans. One woman, who had never met Bennett but was moved by his story, contributed $10,000. Meanwhile, Coyle arranged to have the student loan garnishment removed from Bennett’s monthly disability stipend.

Bennett and Coyle lounging on sleeping bags together.

On May 7, 2019, one month after Gerber’s first conversation with him, Bennett moved into a 430-square-foot studio apartment. Robyn Friedman took it upon herself to furnish the place. “In 48 hours, she outfitted the whole apartment,” says Coyle, right down to the towels in the drawers.

Bennett has now been in the apartment for more than two years. He and Gerber have become close friends, and Coyle travels to New Orleans whenever he can to see him. In a recent interview, Bennett talked about his friendships, his life on the streets and what his “rescue” has meant to him. 

‘I’m sure everyone who is reading this article remembers some people at Stanford who they loved; that’s what John is like for me.’

He speaks as one might expect a poet to speak, colorfully and energetically, sprinkling his descriptions with ornate allusions, pausing from time to time to pull himself back from a digression he finds enticing. He is never more animated than when talking about his years on the Farm. “I’m sure everyone who is reading this article remembers some people at Stanford who they loved; that’s what John is like for me,” he says. “When I’m with John I’m immediately elsewhere, in this beautiful world.”

For someone who was unhoused for more than a decade, his narrative is remarkably devoid of dreary anecdotes. Coyle attributes this in part to Bennett’s innate toughness—he remembers him cracking jokes while being carted off after shattering his arm during a speed skating meet—and his writerly sensibility. “Kevin’s spirit as a writer is what kept hope alive all those years,” he says. “It is clear that part of his essence recognized the romance inherent in living outside.”  

He would never have freely adopted such a lifestyle, Bennett says, but when his rental agreement after Katrina went sideways, his finances—already precarious—forced a painful choice: shelter or food. “Imagine all the money you would have if you didn’t have rent,” he says. “Food cost more because I couldn’t cook, but I could get things I liked and enjoy myself. The other option was to get an apartment and live on Pop-Tarts.”

As he heard this, Coyle laughed. This was the playful banter he had so dearly missed. During a recent visit to New Orleans, he recalls, he had dinner with Bennett and the Gerbers. “Cheryl, Mark and I were lamenting the impact COVID has had on drying up our businesses. Kevin pauses and says, ‘Well, I guess I am the only one here at the table with a steady income.’ I nearly spat out my wine.”

Despite the deprivations he has endured, Bennett says his faith has enabled him to see the brightness around him, and delight in simple pleasures. “Imagine this: You wake up in the morning and you go down to the river and it’s beautiful, like the lake you swam in when you were young. You go for a swim in the river and that’s your light. Then you step out and you’re right next to Café Du Monde, a little French café like you see in paintings. You have a cup of coffee and it’s hot and fresh. God is letting you know that you’re going to have a wonderful morning.”

He spent most of his days walking, covering practically every inch of the city. And once, for good measure, he walked to Baton Rouge, 81 miles away. He smiles at the memory. “I was going down to the river and somehow ended up in Baton Rouge. How I did it I do not know, because I had never been there before. I had an excellent time there. And then I walked back.”

At various times, Bennett says, he tried to find housing, but was always foiled by some combination of inadequate funds, lack of affordable apartments and bad luck. “I wanted to get an apartment so I could start to publish,” he says. “Then John and everyone else did this . . . ” His voice trails off. And then he starts to cry. 

“Thank you so much,” he says to Coyle through a stifled sob. “You brought me back to the world I know.” 

For his Stanford crew, reconnecting with Bennett has been profoundly moving. “There is Kevin the person, and then there is the concept of Kevin, which we have carried with us for 30 years,” Steinhoffer says. “He has held us together.” 

Gerber still isn’t sure why she walked up to Bennett that night two springs ago and started talking with him. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put my finger on what it was,” she says. “There is just something about Kevin that made me think he wasn’t where he belonged.”

Bennett, Gerber and Coyle pose outside. Bennett, Gerber and Coyle (Courtesy Cheryl Gerber)

 

To people hearing it for the first time, Bennett’s story seems like a made-for-Hollywood tale of overcoming the odds. But no one close to Bennett is naive about the challenges ahead. The money set aside from the donations to help pay his rent will run out in a few months, so Coyle is planning another round of fund-raising. And Bennett’s illness may always make him vulnerable to setbacks of one kind or another. 

But there are reasons to be hopeful: For one thing, Bennett is writing again. “He has gobs and gobs of stuff,” Coyle reports.

After all the pain and uncertainty, all the years of not knowing whether his best friend was alive or dead, Coyle cannot bear the thought of losing Bennett again, so he plans to help however he can for as long as it takes. And he can’t resist believing that this saga has more surprises in store. Maybe the book that Bennett has dreamed about will materialize. Maybe the Stanford poet whose verse enthralled his friends and earned acclaim is poised for a breakout. 

The ending to the story has yet to be written. But Kevin Bennett is alive and he is safe. And his muse is awake. 


Recognizing Her

A poem by Kevin Bennett


1.  [In the kitchen]


I live through the small details, the eccentricities

Of the beautiful: the shadows fingering my mother’s hand


As she lifts a pickle jar into the evening light,

While she is still alive and I am alive to see it.


Light renews itself on her skin, resumes

Its old arguments with grief, the air falls away


To become space. A new world revolves here,

Around her hands as they shape the jar,


Each breath becomes a new god to believe in.

I am lost in the white roses of skin which open


On each of her knuckles, I am held hostage

By the death-defying patience of the smallest things.


2.  [At the supermarket]


My mother is testing the ripeness of a plum.

She is fifty-one and lovely, raising the plum


Toward the light, squinting into it like a face

She almost recognizes but cannot remember.


She is holding the plum close to her mouth now

As if to redeem it, to give it another body


Break its slow circles into hers. A large white

SALE! sign hovers over her shoulder


Like a cardboard angel which will never

Descend, never bring the good news.


The plum’s swollen purple shines,

A twin to the inmost shadow of her mouth,


Silence ripening into a word. It is

As perfect and rotund as the darkness


Hidden in her skull, that precious solitude

She carries with her everywhere—


She once said the strong must always 

Taste their loneliness to remain strong.



Kevin Cool is the former executive editor of Stanford. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.