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Jim Kenyon: John Caswell’s hard life remembered at Upper Valley Haven

  • John Caswell, of White River Junction, Vt., takes photographs of clouds while waiting for the bus in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 28, 2016. Caswell had just purchased the chair he was using from Listen Community Services Thrift Store. He likes to photograph the clouds because they are always changing. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/20/2019 9:44:01 PM
Modified: 4/20/2019 9:43:59 PM

The four-paragraph obituary for 62-year-old John Stephen Caswell made no mention of a funeral or memorial service.

But last Wednesday — the second anniversary of Caswell’s death — the Upper Valley Haven held an outdoor remembrance ceremony that was, well, something to remember.

Over the years, I’ve written a few times about Caswell and his hardscrabble life. The Lebanon native battled alcoholism, mental illness and homelessness before succumbing to pneumonia and a blood infection while hospitalized in April 2017.

The memorial service at the Haven, the homeless shelter, food shelf and all-around safety net for poor people in White River Junction, drew about 20 people. They included Haven staff members, social workers and a few friends.

No one was a better friend to Caswell than Bob Drake.

They were an unusual pairing — the Ivy League-educated psychiatrist and the destitute high school dropout. “I knew John for about 35 years,” Drake said when asked at the service to talk about Caswell. “He was a kind, gentle, caring soul.”

Drake was the medical director at West Central Behavioral Health, a nonprofit community mental health care provider in Lebanon, when Caswell became his patient. Drake recalled that Caswell had run afoul of the law — and his family — when on a drinking binge and in the throes of a psychotic break, he set fire to his family’s home.

After his wife and three sons moved far away without him, Caswell’s substance abuse problems worsened. He began reliving his childhood, which in his case wasn’t a good thing. As I once wrote, Caswell was on the other side of a locked door in his family’s Lebanon home one Christmas Eve when his father ended his own life with a bullet.

In a 2012 interview, Caswell told me, “For a long time, I blamed my turning to drugs and alcohol on my father’s death, but it was really my choice.”

With Drake’s help, Caswell got sober in his 30s. He earned his GED and an associate degree in human services counseling. He worked on and off counseling people on mental illness and substance abuse at Next Step Peer Support Center in Lebanon.

He did some writing projects for what was then the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center, which Drake was affiliated with. “Personal stories about recovery are very important,” said Drake, who is also on the faculty at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. “John was a perfect example of someone who’d had a terrible life, but when he got over his addiction, he became a wonderful person.”

Drake helped Caswell self-publish his poetry books. “It was pretty good stuff,” Drake said. “He’d get mad, though, when nobody would buy it.”

Caswell could test the patience of social workers and police officers with whom he came into frequent contact. Few people minded when Caswell would abruptly announce that he was leaving the Upper Valley to hitchhike across the country, work construction in Alaska or take a bus to visit family in Nebraska.

Bouts of depression and chronic paranoid schizophrenia, however, made it hard for him to stay put. Often when he pulled up stakes, he headed for the woods around Lebanon, where he’d played as a kid. “He felt more comfortable there,” Drake said.

In February 2016, Caswell set up camp near the ski jump at Storrs Hill in Lebanon. Police tried to persuade Caswell to move into the Haven’s homeless shelter, where he lived from time to time.

When he wouldn’t heed their advice, cops warned Caswell that if he didn’t take down his shelter, it would be taken down for him. He couldn’t continue to camp on city property, police told him. “I’m not camping,” Caswell retorted. “I’m surviving.”

After a few days and a case of frostbite on his toes, Caswell agreed to move into the Haven. After the Valley News wrote about his winter encampment at Storrs Hill, Caswell received a small amount of money from an anonymous donor. He promptly turned it over to a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans and their families.

Whether Caswell was living in the woods or in a subsidized apartment, Drake made a point of checking on him. Drake marveled at the makeshift bird feeders that Caswell had built out of branches when living in a Wilder apartment. “He was always very interested in birds,” Drake said.

Which brings me to the site of Wednesday’s memorial service. In Caswell’s honor, the Haven has built a “safe place” — ideal for bird watching — in its backyard. Carved stones embedded in the ground run up to the Haven’s back fence at the top of a steep bank that leads to the Connecticut River. From this spot, a bald eagle is sometimes seen gliding high above the river.

“This space was created to honor John,” Haven Executive Director Michael Redmond told the gathering. “It’s a place for serenity, reflection and perhaps, prayer. It’s a way to take in nature.”

A marble plaque is bolted to a simple wooden post. “John helped countless others with his poetry, generosity and ideals,” reads its inscription. “He did not receive much love from the world, but he gave love freely to others. He was destitute, but he gave all he had to others.”

After the service, I sat with Drake on one of the space’s two new iron benches. Caswell was “frequently misunderstood,” Drake said, but not at the Haven. “People treated him kindly here.”

A gift from an anonymous donor paid for the materials and the work that went into building the space, which will soon include a garden of daylilies.

My curiosity got the best of me. Was Drake the anonymous donor?

He didn’t give me an answer, but that was OK. What matters is that his good friend will continue to be remembered in a fitting way.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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