Liberal giant Ken Roos, who died last summer, now has a bench he can call his own

  • Ken Roos died of a heart attack last summer. Last week, family and friends held a ceremony in his honor. Courtesy

  • A bench was dedicated for the late Ken Roos at the SEAU 1984 headquarters in Concord on Aug. 10, which was Roos’s birthday. He died on July 29, 2018. Ray Duckler / Monitor staff

  • Jodi Roos speaks at the dedication of a bench for her late husband Ken Roos at the SEAU 1984 headquarters in Concord on Aug. 10, which was Roos's birthday. He died on July 29, 2018. Ray Duckler—Monitor staff

  • Jodi Roos hugs her dog Shuggy at the bench dedicated to her husband, Ken, at the SEA/SEIU Local 184 headquarters on Main Street in Concord on Friday, August 16, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jodi Roos hugs her dog Shuggy at the bench dedicated to her husband, Ken, at the SEA/SEIU Local 184 headquarters on Main Street in Concord on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jodi Roos with her dog Shuggy at the bench dedicated to her husband, Ken, at the SEA/SEIU Local 184 headquarters on Main Street in Concord on Friday, August 16, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/16/2019 5:48:09 PM

When talking about Ken Roos you hear a lot about two things: his activism and his antics.

I got to hear about both sides of the man’s personality, the serious and the silly, during a ceremony last Saturday at the SEA/SEIU Local 1984 building on North Main Street. About 50 people – friends, family, admirers – showed up at the event dedicating a granite bench with bold black lettering to Roos, a Concord resident who died after suffering a heart attack last summer at age 63.

Roos was a giant to many. In the world of social causes. As someone who felt compelled to be at Ground Zero in New York City shortly after the debris and smoke had settled, and in New Orleans, once the winds of Hurricane Katrina had stopped blowing.

He was vice president of the State Employees Association, an employee of the Department of Health and Human Services, a father, a husband, a friend.

And a liberal. That was obvious at the SEA, with its parking lot filled with lefty bumper stickers supporting Bernie and Elizabeth and expressing distaste for the death penalty and lax gun laws.

“He would be the first one breaking into those detention centers to take those kids out,” his daughter, Alexa Roos, told me before the ceremony, addressing the scenario at our border with Mexico. “He would fight for equality and try to defeat hate.”

But what about that other side I mentioned? The sense of humor. The part inside Roos that always told him to strike a balance, to take life and its obstacles seriously, but never let those scenarios take him down.

He was a teller of jokes, some considered so bad and goofy that you had no choice but to laugh, simply because he thought he was funny. Or, perhaps, you’d roll your eyes instead.

And then there’s that bench, a monument to a man whose personality had more color than a kaleidoscope. It says “Yes We Ken,” clearly visible from the front.

It also says “GFY,” a black-lettered acronym on one of the bench’s legs. I was told to look at it. I had to kneel down low to see it. I was told it stood for ... well, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

Roos, it seems, directed those words towards those he loved. Most of the time they were aimed at a childhood friend. The two grew up in Swampscott, Mass.

“They would just randomly text each other and that’s what he’d write,” Alexa said.

“That was in honor of their close bond,” said co-worker Mary Fields. “It’s there for the spirit of Ken, what embodies him. Everyone who knew him knew that was Ken.”

That’s how it went last Saturday. That’s how those in attendance described him, the opening to our conversations dependent on the source. I’d hear first that Roos was nutty, then told he was noble. Or Roos was a man of integrity, followed by Roos was a man with an active funny bone.

The comical side, then the serious side. Or the serious side, followed by the comical side.

Take your pick.

Roos and Fields worked at the Department of Health and Human Services, their desks close to one another. Roos used to shoot Nerf darts at Fields, over the barrier separating them. Or he’d approach her desk acting like the Sundance Kid, his Nerf gun pointed her way.

Fields sometimes responded by shooting a rubber band, trying to hit the ceiling and have it drop directly on Roos’s head.

“He would pretty much walk over with his silly little joker smirk and conjure up some reason to talk to me every morning,” said Fields, the first vice president at the SEA. “He’d interrupt my day just to be silly or to say something political, just to get my goad up, because that is what he liked to do. An icebreaker, a tension reliever, whatever it was.”

Years ago, Roos convinced little Alexa that he was Larry from the Three Stooges, and why not? His hair looked the same as Larry’s. And he told her he was, indeed, the original Larry, the one father and daughter would watch on TV in what became a bonding ritual.

Roos’s wife, Jodi Roos, playfully tried to knock her husband off his standup-comedy routine, telling me, “I tried not to laugh at his jokes, so he’d tell it to others until someone laughed. Then he’d come back to me and say, ‘See, I told you it was funny.’ ”

Other parts of Roos’s life were serious. At Swampscott High School in the early 1970s, he and classmate Beth Campbell protested against the Vietnam War. Campbell coincidentally moved to Concord, where she and Roose became close friends.

She said Roos carried a sign that day. Roos, it seems, always had a sign to accompany his views.

“We walked out of school and demonstrated in front of the high school,” Campbell said after giving a short speech. “The funny thing was the administration knew we were going to do it, and they were afraid we’d tear (the American flag) down or burn it or something.”

Roos once carried a sign on Black Friday to Walmart, protesting the fact that employees there had to work the day after Thanksgiving.

Alexa was asked if a particular cause meant the most to her father. No, she said.

“It was just anything that would make everybody equal,” she said. “Maybe each day something was more important than something else, but I don’t think he could pick just one cause.”

His passion for those in need spread in all directions.

“He’d always root for the underdog,” Fields said. “It didn’t matter what it was. It could have been health safety in another building. Someone would talk about paint chips falling off a wall and he’d be all about that. He’d be serious and he’d take it to the max.”

His behavior was impossible to ignore, and his trip to New York City to help first responders after Sept. 11 did not slip past his son, Nate Roos, who flew in from his home in Washington, D.C., to attend Saturday’s dedication.

“I realized this world is kind of crazy,” Nate said, “and to see the response of dad, turning words into action, that kind of set the tone for me.”

And others, as well. The cast of characters who felt compelled to see the bench unveiled included liberal heavyweights like Arnie Alpert, the co-director of the American Friends Service Committee, and Rep. Steve Shurtleff, Democrat from Penacook.

Jodi chose Aug. 10 because it would have been her husband’s 65th birthday. The stories never stopped, some surrounding the comedy, others focused on the causes. A few people suggested using the bench as a therapeutic tool, a place to sit in peace to block out the pressures of the day.

And the world.

“I think this is awesome,” Alexa said. “I like the bench right where it is. I think he would have liked it there, too.”




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