TROY, Mich (Reuters) - Friends and admirers of Jack Kevorkian — known as “Dr. Death” for his prominent role in the U.S. debate on assisted suicide — remembered him for his quieter, ascetic side, at a memorial service on Friday.
The doctor, who died June 3 at age 83 after being hospitalized for about two weeks, rose to notoriety in the 1990s for helping at least 130 people kill themselves and as a campaigner for legal assisted suicide.
But the son of Armenian immigrants, so frugal that most of his clothing came from the Salvation Army and he preferred buses to taxis, had not started out expecting so much attention.
His niece, Ava Janus, recalled the preparations for the first suicide Kevorkian assisted in, that of Janet Adkins, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
“We wanted to be sure that Mrs. Adkins had everything she needed in her last moments. It was all-consuming,” Janus said at a funeral chapel in Troy, Michigan, outside Detroit.
“When it was over, they thought they were going to go out for coffee,” Janus said. The media attention that followed “was not what my uncle expected,” she added.
Kevorkian’s friends and attorneys told a group of about 150 people about the man who beat prosecutors four times before being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999.
Kevorkian spent eight years in prison for that conviction, which came after he videotaped himself giving a lethal cocktail of chemicals to Thomas Youk, who had the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease. The video was later shown on national television.
Mayer Morganroth, one of Kevorkian’s lawyers, recalled that when he went to pick his client up on the day of his release, even the warden admitted to fondness for her charge.
“As we walked out, the prisoners were all in the yard, along the fence. They all cheered Jack,” Morganroth said.
While Kevorkian was best known for his campaigns to allow people to die if they wished to, his doctor Stanley Levy said he had also worked on ways to prolong life.
As a military doctor during the Korean war, Kevorkian wondered if it would be safe to transfuse blood from recently dead soldiers to the wounded in cases where blood was in short supply. Kevorkian later tried that experiment on himself, and a result contracted hepatitis C, Levy said.
“The idea was that we could do something on the battlefield, a creative idea on the battlefield, that would save lives,” Levy said.
Kevorkian himself last year told Reuters Television that he was as afraid to die as anyone else, but believed the world had a hypocritical view of voluntary euthanasia.
“If we can aid people into coming into the world, why can’t we aid them in exiting the world,” Kevorkian said.
While Kevorkian may not have initially expected the public spotlight, he did not shy from it once he was under the media spotlight. Right-to-die advocates praised Kevorkian for his success in bringing the discussion of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients to mainstream America.
“He was brash, sure of himself,” said Bernie Klein, 77-year-old retired engineer and right-to-die activist who attended the service. “He had the guts to do it in public, to bring this issue into public consciousness in a way no one else did.”
Doctor-assisted suicide essentially became law in Oregon in 1997 and in Washington state in 2009. The practice of doctors writing prescriptions to help terminally ill patients kill themselves was upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ruth Holmes, another friend who Kevorkian stayed with for about six months during his last trial, recalled him as an unassuming guest, one who on a typical visit would accept no more than a cup of coffee and a slice of plain white bread.
“Jack was always a gentleman, but he was also a very cheap date,” she said.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Greg McCune