Enjoyed ‘Come From Away’? Meet Kevin Tuerff, the real ‘Kevin T’ who inspired a global kindness movement

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Author-Activist Kevin Tuerff (photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff)

Pretty much anyone over the age of 20 remembers vividly the devastation of the 9/11 attacks. 17 years on, their impact and aftermath remain indelibly etched in Kevin Tuerff’s mind. As one of the “Plane People” whose flight was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, he lived it from afar. The skies were empty and silent when US air space closed, halting international air travel. Fear swelled, along with acute distrust. At a time of global chaos, the impromptu hospitality of the 3000-resident community of Gander went a long way towards restoring the world’s faith in compassion. That story has been immortalized in the multi-award-winning, runaway hit musical Come From Away, currently playing to sold-out houses on Broadway and in Toronto, and readying for both a North American tour this fall and a winter engagement in Dublin that will precede the show’s opening in London’s West End in early 2019. A production in Melbourne, Australia is also readying to open next summer. From its workshop production at Sheridan College to its pre-Broadway runs in Toronto, Seattle and San Diego, the musical has gripped audiences’ hearts. The show’s creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein had interviewed many Plane People (or “come from aways,” in Newfoundland parlance), including Mr Tuerff. His account found its place in the musical’s plot in the form of character “Kevin T.”

“I’ve been telling my story of being stranded in Gander on 9/11 since the moment I returned home to Austin, Texas, where my partner and I lived,” Mr Tuerff recalls. “The first article about my remarkable experience of humanity during the tragedy of the September 11 attacks appeared in late September 2001 in the Austin Business Journal.” After seeing the Sheridan College workshop production of Come From Away in Toronto, he thought that would be the “finish line.” Instead, it became the start of a momentous “global storytelling adventure”. From the beginning, the show received daily standing ovations in San Diego and Seattle. The producers mentioned to him that audience members were clamouring to know more, asking, ‘Why have I never heard this story before? I want to learn more stories’.”

Kevin kisses a cod at a screech-in ceremony to become an honourary Newfoundlander (photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff)

Eventually, Mr Tuerff came to see this curiosity as an invitation to memorialize his own recollections of his time in Gander. Having just stepped down from the environmental marketing company he co-founded in 1997, he was ready for something new. “But what?” he had wondered. Around this time, the idea for a memoir began to take root. Soon afterwards, he travelled to a fishing pier in Florida, where he wrote Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 in just three months, so that it would be ready in time for the show’s Broadway premiere. “Channel of Peace is my first book, and, I’m proud to share, it has been very positively received.” Soon after self-publishing it, he began to deliver talks about his story. One stop was to a packed house at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, prior to the musical’s triumphant return to Canada as an all-Canadian production. He cites a deeper reason for this intense interest: “Like the success of the musical, my book has benefited from the public craving positive stories about humanity.”

The book is Mr Tuerff’s deeply personal first-person account. It provides factual background and personal observations, and recounts his interactions with others who had been stranded, some of whom have also found their way into the musical. (As one example, Mr Tuerff clarifies the first of many instances of fiction over fact…. The producers transposed the “Kevins” in the musical to Los Angeles, in order to avoid having too many characters from Texas.) His commentary, insights and friendly tone (which reflect Mr Tuerff’s approachable and responsive disposition) make Channel of Peace an absorbing and rapid read.

Audiences of the musical might be surprised to learn that Mr Tuerff no longer lives in Austin, but in New York City, a mere three blocks away from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and the 9/11 Tribute Museum. He attributes the move to an unseen “reason the universe wants me to be here right now”. His regular visits to New York City since 1997 were primarily to see Broadway shows. “Never in a million years did I think I might have a connection to one,” he muses. “I always said, ‘I like New York City, but I’d never live there.’”

Pay It Forward 9/11 2017 with the Broadway cast of Come From Away (photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff)

All that changed in May 2017, when Mr Tuerff, a practising Catholic, arrived at the Church of St. Francis Xavier at 16th Street & Sixth Avenue after completing a Jesuit spiritual silent retreat in 2016. (He cheekily describes this as a week  “without talking, texting, TV, or drinking Grey Goose vodka”.) While there, he experienced a “remarkable vision…calling me to help speak out about kindness to strangers, immigrants and refugees”. His spiritual advisor referred him to a Jesuit parish to drop off his then-new book with the pastor of the Church of St. Francis Xavier. When he got out of the taxi, his first sight was a prominent vinyl banner affixed to the church: “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome”. “Wow, you don’t see that banner hanging on many churches in Austin,” he thought to himself. “By the end of the one-hour Mass, it was clear this church was meant to be my new parish home. But I couldn’t commute every Sunday from Austin!”

Since moving across the country to join his “remarkable church” in New York City, he has volunteered wholeheartedly in support of its initiative to accompany asylum seekers to an immigration detention centre near Newark airport. He calls it unequivocally the “most rewarding volunteer experience of my life”. Prior to this, he had never visited anyone in jail. In November 2017, he was assigned to Sam, an asylum seeker from West Africa who had escaped torture, kidnapping and attempted murder in his home country. Sam was forced to flee, leaving his wife and children behind. He had no friends, family in the US . . . or money. “I helped him find a pro bono attorney. I visited with him weekly for six months until he was granted asylum by an immigration judge.” Sam is now a free man, in no small part thanks to Mr Tuerff’s practical and moral support.

Kevin Tuerff at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, ON (photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff)

And both Sam and Mr. Tuerff have benefited in deeper and permanently life-changing ways: “I’m a white, gay American Catholic. Sam is a black, straight, Pentecostal African. We’re now such good friends [that] Sam calls me his twin.” Mr. Tuerff likens the aid he provided Sam to the help he received from the people of Gander in 2001 – and laments how this kind of support is, at least at present, a more Canadian than American stance: “They open their arms regardless of a person’s nationality, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. That’s the way we’d all want to be treated, right? Canada and dozens of other countries only use immigration detention (jail) as a last resort. Seeking asylum should not be treated like a crime in America.”

Mr Tuerff’s desire to promote kindness is neither new, nor localised to his church’s outreach organization. In fact, it was born soon after returning to Austin from Gander. After receiving a tour of the Pentagon from 9/11 survivor Kathy Dillaber, he felt “overwhelmed with emotion” and called upon to take action: “I feel honored and blessed to have my story shared on stage, but I feel obligated to use this spotlight for good.” At a time when the world seems divided, Mr. Tuerff is on a constant lookout for ways to “unite us again”. He is on the board of a global organization, Charter for Compassion, whose goal is to “reinvigorate the Golden Rule: ‘Treat others and the planet as you would like to be treated’.” He is also active in raising funds to settle refugees from Syria.

Since 2002,  every year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he has shared the Gander story with his annual “Pay it Forward 9/11.” This is a way to spread kindness, in a spirit reminiscent of the compassion that Gander residents showed by opening their homes to 7000 vulnerable strangers. Before his current self-employment, Mr Tuerff would divide his employees into small groups and give each $100 to spend on 3 random acts of kindness. At the end of the day, they would return to the office to share how they spent the money. “At one time, Mr Tuerff was concerned that his self-employment as a marketing consultant might jeopardize the Pay it Forward 9/11 tradition. However, Junkyard Dog Productions, producers of Come From Away, have continued it, to his delight: “While the show was running at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, they agreed to distribute $100 bills to the cast, band and crew, so they could do random acts of kindness on the anniversary of 9/11.

(L-R) Great Big Sea’s Bob Hallett, Kevin Tuerff, Beulah Cooper with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, backstage at Come from Away at The Schoenfeld Theater in NYC, March 15, 2017 (photo by Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

“This year, their tradition has expanded to include Broadway, Toronto and the North American touring companies, all participating in the same way we did back in Austin in 2002 and every year thereafter.” (The Toronto cast and crew have created Come From Kindness, an initiative to benefit causes they want to support.) So “this year, for the 17th time, we continue the tradition of encouraging people to remember the lives lost, and the acts of kindness and compassion by performing three random acts of kindness to strangers”. Obviously a matter close to his heart, he is thrilled that the Appendix of his book, “10 Ways to Pay It Forward” has “really caught hold.”

Mr Tuerff lives by his convictions, and he encourages others – especially young people – to do so, too. For starters, he proposes bluntly that we “stop pretending to be engaged with humanity through our mobile devices”. Next, he suggests that young people advocate for change: “If I were a teen today, I’d hope that I would be brave enough to speak up and engage with the older generations making public-policy decisions which they will inherit,” he suggests. “It is not easy to inspire change, but we all must try”. Finally, he would love to see young LGBTQ teens change the Catholic church, and force politicians to get busy and find compromise on the issue of immigration. He warns that “relying on someone else to be an agent of kindness won’t cut it.” Mr. Tuerff leaves off with an anecdote about Kathryn, a teen from Paduccah, Kentucky, who participated in Pay it Forward 9/11 in 2017 and “loved it”. Soon after, she commemorated her grandfather’s 70th birthday by encouraging her family to do 70 random acts of kindness, which she documented in a scrapbook for her grandfather. Months later, for her Sweet 16 birthday party, Kathryn told her friends to Pay it Forward in lieu of gifts. On hearing about this, Mr Tuerff got his readers around the world to do the same, in her honor. He himself gave an extra big tip to a taxi driver after a hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico. The driver was so grateful he recorded a video birthday greeting to Kathryn, thanking her.

Kevin Tuerff jumps for joy outside the Schoenfeld Theatre, NYC, following the announcement of Come From Away’s multiple Tony Award nominations (photo courtesy of Kevin Tuerff)

At the time of this writing, Canada is embroiled in tense and acrimonious trade negotiations. US President Trump’s naked hostility toward Canada is worlds removed from the two nations’ shared history and Mr Tuerff’s cherished memories of their bond. Channel of Peace takes its title from a hymn that is a source of continuing solace to Mr Tuerff, and echoed in “Prayer,” a song in Come From Away that combines prayers from various religions and lyrics in different languages. There truly is no time like the present to enact the principles of goodwill that he outlines so cogently in his book –  to spread kindness like a runaway viral contagion. As the 17th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, how will we choose to remember where we were, whom we lost, and what we value? If we take a cue from Mr Tuerff (and the many Kathryns that he and Come From Away have inspired), we can become channels of peace, advocating through our daily actions for a home where – instead of building verbal or literal walls – we lay out the welcome mat, smile, and open our doors to one another.

News You Can Use

What: Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 by Kevin Tuerff (available in print and digital versions), House of Anansi Press; ISBN: 9781487005139
Who: Readers 12 years of age and older
Info: channelofpeacebook.com and payitforward911.org

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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