A Personal History – Part 2
Meanwhile, I was working furiously to complete my book, Life at Death. I was lucky enough to find an agent for it and before I knew it, I learned that there was actually a bidding war going on for my book. I was amazed because I was at the time a completely unknown author – just a professor of no particular distinction and no professional reputation at all. Nevertheless, my book seemed to be a hot commodity and I finally accepted an offer from a then well know publisher. My editor soon became the head of the publishing firm, and I was thrilled to have her to advise me. I still remember how she courted me. She took me to “her table” at the fabled Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. I remember only one thing that happened at the outset of our lunch that day. She reached across the table, and solemnly placing her hand on mine, told me, “This is just the beginning, Ken.”
Wow, who me? But in a way, she was right. She quickly set up an extensive book tour for me, and in those days there were many television shows where authors like me would be invited to hawk their books. Before long, I was a guest on all the popular network shows of that era – Good Morning America, The Today Show, Donahue, Larry King, and so many more – dozens, probably, and radio shows, too. I was interviewed by then famous anchors, such as Tom Brokaw, and met other celebrities who were also guests on those shows. My biggest thrill was meeting some baseball heroes of my youth – Yankee pitcher, Whitey Ford, and Los Angeles catcher, Roy Campanella. I also recall being with Carol Channing (“Hello, Dolly!”) in the green room of one program where she looked – no disrespect – like a old hag. Until she went on when she was transformed into the dynamic stage star she had long been famous as. It was a heady time for me. My fifteen minutes of minor celebrity. I tried not to let it go to my head, which fortunately remained firmly attached to my neck. That wasn’t too hard because my book never became a best seller, though it did respectably. But after that, I was often “in demand” and had more offers for speaking engagements than I could accommodate.
Now back to earth.
Late in 1980, after my whirlwind book tour was over, John Audette asked me if I would take over the organization he had been heading and run it “for a year” while he devoted himself to NDE research. I agreed, but with conditions. I wanted to re-name it and call it The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and make it into a dues-paying membership organization. I also would establish a headquarters for it at The University of Connecticut, where I then taught, and found a scholarly NDE journal, etc. All of which I was able to do, thanks to the invaluable support of Greyson and Audette — and a lot of help from my friends and probably a few angels as well. Anyway, after my meeting with Audette, I went to work.
I first approached my department head at the university and managed to get an old unused office (we eventually needed three) to set up shop, and then I recruited a bunch of my students to help run it. A then graduate student (who eventually became an English professor and poet) named Steve Straight was one of my main assistants, and he edited the newsletter, which I had named Vital Signs. In those days before desktop publishing, everything had to be done by hand. We would stay up all night doing paste-up to get the newsletter out on time. Then several volunteers and I would crowd into the office, affix labels, munch pizza, and cart the things over to the post office and send them out. A student of mine, Leah Andrews, with her faithful dog Pardner, ran the office then and helped me with the mountains of correspondence that soon started flooding in. A dreamy art student named Ned Kahn (who later became a world-famous environmental artist and MacArthur grant recipient) designed the original IANDS logo.
We had fun, we had a wonderful esprit de corps, though some weeks I worked a hundred hours between running IANDS, teaching at the university, editing our journal, and shooting my mouth off at lectures around the country. I was young then. We had a ball, and we didn’t spend a cent on salaries. That was what IANDS was like in the early days. Nothing would have been possible, though, without the tireless and devoted help of those students. And those angels who must have guided our efforts.
But my NDE life was not confined to the university. No, it had already spilled over to my home, which I now shared with my then love, Norma, and our children (from our previous marriages). At that time, we lived in a beautiful old house on the banks of the Mt. Hope River. The house had a storied history from colonial times (guess who was rumored to have slept there?) and had once been a converted inn. We came to call it “The Near-Death Hotel,” and sometimes, as a joke, hoisted up a banner on the porch between the house’s stately pillars with that name proclaimed for all the neighbors and passersby to gawk at.
My home soon became a kind of informal center for near-death studies. Steve Straight lived there for a couple of years as did a nurse from Spain, Maria Castedo, who was passionate about NDEs. (I have remained in touch with them both.) As for Norma, who was really the heart of the near-death hotel, we lived as man and wife though we never married. (After three failed marriages, I had promised my daughter, Kathryn, I would never marry again.) But since everything was near-this and near-that, Norma became my “near-wife.” She was a woman who loved to hug and had a piquant sense of humor, too. She once suggested that if I were ever to write my autobiography, I should call it Wife After Wife.
Once my book had come out, NDErs from all over sought me out and quite a few eventually arrived and stayed with us in what we came to call “the near-death room.” Some of these persons were memorable characters. There was Patrick Gallagher, who had once been a distinguished university professor of anthropology, but after his NDE, became a kind of Whitmanesque character bumming around the country.
You see, one morning I woke up with a near-death ditty on my mind. I remember that day, too, because the lyrics for the song came, like Athena from Zeus’s brow, virtually fully formed without my having to do more than write them down. Sung to the tune of Gene Autry’s theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again,” it went like this:
Seein’ my future and my past
Floating through tunnel now,
I look around say, “oh wow!”
It’s so peaceful here,
I don’t feel no kind of fear.”
Just driftin’ and singin’ my song
Oh Lord, why’s this tunnel so long?
Is that a golden light I see?
The face of God shines through
And I’m headin’ straight for you
(In a basso profundo, as befits God)
And your family and friends need you, too
So I’m sending you back
One more chance to get on track
You’ll come to me later
(Ritardando) On my cosmic elevator
(In a natural but awed voice)
Wonderin’ what happened just then
Was that the Lord above
Did I just imagine all that love?
I reckon I’ll know one day for sure
(Ritardando) I reckon I’ll know one day for sure
[Da-dum (dominant-tonic) on the guitar….]
Sometimes when we would have an IANDS board meeting at my home, I would be asked to sing that song before we got to work. It always got a laugh and put us in a good mood. But I also took it on the road. Once I sang it close up to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross at her farm in Virginia. Another time, at the Omega Institute in New York, where I was doing a workshop, I had the chance to sing it to Pete Seeger, who looked completely baffled (he had no idea what I was singing about) as well as to Bobby McFerrin, who seemed amused. Somebody eventually told me that someone had brought the song to the attention of Willie Nelson who said he wanted to record it, but of course he never did.
I had no shame singing it on occasion at some of the conferences I attended at the conclusion of my lecture. I remember once, in Prague, in front of an audience of 2000, I sang it and got one of the few standing O’s I’ve ever received. I don’t know how my talk was received, but my song was a hit!
Which brings me back to Blaine, who was a musician and guitarist. Naturally, I sang it for Blaine, and it inspired him to write his own near-death songs, which he would then perform at local clubs. I remember he had one called “The Near-Death Hotel,” and another, “Tiptoe through the Tunnel.” Blaine stayed with us for a month, too.
Raymond Moody never had much interest in IANDS as such, but of course we all were very fond of Raymond, who was a delight and has a marvelous sense of humor. He would often crack us up with his wit when he made fun of southern preachers, enacting the role of “Brother Raymond.” Sometimes we’d all troop down to his farm in Virginia to hold our board meetings there. Here’s a photograph of “the four amigos” with Raymond who loved to sit in his rocking chair during these affairs:
In those early days of IANDS, when I was serving as its President and genial dictator, I was also doing my best to raise funds for the organization since, I must confess, most of our board members didn’t do squat in that regard. I never liked having to make a pitch for IANDS with potential wealthy benefactors, but it did give me the opportunity to spend time with the moneyed crowd in Palm Beach, with politicians like the longtime senator from Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell, and with his pal, one of the princes of Lichtenstein. And then there was a wealthy man of mystical leanings in Malibu where he lived in a palatial house once owned by the Aga Khan who had been married to the actress, Rita Hayworth. When I stayed there, I slept in a vast bedroom called “The Rita Hayworth” room. This man had a large following of Hollywood types and minor celebrities, like “Miss Oil of Olay,” next to whom I sat at one lavish dinner, and a runner-up in a Miss America contest. It turned out this man was a leader of some kind of cult, but when I declined to be initiated, he booted me out.
Well, those were the days, my friends, but they had to end, at least for me. After serving two terms as President of IANDS, I was due for a sabbatical and asked Bruce Greyson to relieve me of the responsibility of editing our NDE journal. He not only consented, but edited it for the next twenty-five years and turned it into a first-rate scholarly journal. Meanwhile I returned to my research, writing, lecturing and my day job as a professor at UCONN.
Here’s a photo of Bruce and me from those days, which was taken at one of those board meetings. Brothers, we were:
As for me, I’m back in the saddle again, just riding a different horse until I get to that last round-up in the sky.
Note: As I will be undergoing surgery on December second and will be out of commission for a couple of weeks afterward, I won’t be able to respond to any comments after the 2nd for a while, though I am always happy to receive them. This will also be my last blog of the year, and I’m not sure I will continue to write more next year. So let me just take this opportunity to thank you for reading my musings over the past couple of years. I hope you found my blogs amusing and entertaining and maybe, occasionally, more than that. Best wishes to all!
Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., is a past Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, and an internationally recognized authority on the subject of near-death experiences on which he has written five books and nearly a hundred articles. He is also the co-founder and past President of The International Association for Near-Death Studies and the founding editor of its quarterly scholarly journal, The Journal of Near-Death Studies, which began in 1982 and continues to this day. Dr. Ring has appeared on many television and radio programs and been often interviewed in the press in connection with his work on near-death experiences.
And read one of our most popular posts — Dr. Kenneth Ring’s Do Our Pets Have an Afterlife? HERE.