Talk to anyone wandering into Keith Kauer’s home on the first Friday evening of the month, and they’ll share the same message: The homeowner, retired from careers as an aircraft engineer and community college dean, is a character.
Instead of heading to the Crossroads Arts District for First Friday, many in this Northgate Village neighborhood chose to gather around the punchbowl in Kauer’s quirky, charming house on a corner facing a park.
The monthly potluck in North Kansas City features the finest of homemade fare, along with door prizes and a birthday/anniversary cake for those celebrating a milestone.
“It was originally called the Northgate Patio Odds, but that sounded a little unusual,” says Kauer with a laugh. “We called ourselves the Odds because we were pulling together all the people on this side of the street, which are odd-numbered houses.”
That evened out after the gatherings, which started in 2006, gained popularity. A quick tour of his home includes a hot tub in a garage space, along with a room he calls his “hippie pad.” While age has taken some of the spring out of his step, it clearly has not diminished his wit.
In this Bohemian-looking room his two certified service dogs, a Maltese and a Maltese-Chihuahua, are patiently waiting to be invited to the party.
“I take Walter and JC out to see hospice patients,” he says, giving them both a scratch behind the ear. He tells them to sit tight and walks back out to greet more guests.
About 20 people are tucked into an open kitchen and living room space. Neighborhood news is shared: One woman recently joined the Peace Corps and is in Africa. Another has decided to take her house off the market, news that is applauded by many.
“We usually have more than this, but there’s a bug going around,” says Kauer’s friend, Brenda Clevenger. For the past year, Clevenger has been in charge of putting together “The Punch Bowl,” a monthly newsletter.
It includes everything from information about a neighbor who has fractured her hand to an update on a dog park soon to open. It’s also a prime spot for swapping recipes and sharing news on homes and townhouses for sale in the community.
The bowl that inspired the newsletter’s name — always the center of attention at the first Friday gatherings — has a little something special added to the fruit drink, say several attendees with a grin.
While the punch may have a kick, and a few bottles of wine circulate, the attendees are sober enough to talk business. A quick business meeting usually starts about 7 p.m., after food has been served. Topics include everything from neighborhood association dues to concerns about snow removal.
The meeting is short and sweet this month.
“We need more rabble-rousers,” says Kauer, while the crowd laughingly tells him that no news is good news.
It’s time for the monthly drawing and Carol Aiken wins a calendar. “What year is this calendar?” she says as she accepts it.
“Don’t worry, it’s 2014,” calls a voice in the crowd as laughter fills the room. Cake is presented to the one person who has a birthday that month, Beverly Meyers.
“Keith is the lynchpin of this group,” she says in a low voice after finishing her cake. “We don’t have a clubhouse in this area, so if he goes, I really don’t know what we’d all do.”
His neighbors’ obvious adoration for Kauer is reciprocated.
What is amazing, Kauer says, is that they all take care of one another.
“It’s unbelievable to me how good these people are, through and through,” Kauer says. “I know these people will help me whenever I need it.”
Kauer asks if the crowd is ready for the dogs to be released.
“It’s about time,” is the general sentiment.
Clevenger stops to admire the dogs, who weave through their fan club, sniffing for treats.
Clevenger has a new job as a public relations person, and has a relationship that keeps her busy on weekends, so she’s hoping someone else takes over her role as Punch Bowl newsletter editor.
Her admiration for the “sage of the neighborhood” reveals itself when she discusses how he pulled together so many people for these (Thank God It’s First Friday) celebrations.
“For two years when I wasn’t dating, I joked that I was dating Keith,” she says. “He entertains you for hours with his jokes and stories.”
While neighbors are welcome to walk into the home without knocking, Kauer insists on escorting every guest out, accompanied by the dogs, who snap to his side when he calls them.
He points to a framed poster of James Dean on the front porch and reads aloud the words near the movie star’s portrait.
“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today,” Kauer says. “He was my man.”