Living

Long, remarkably detailed obituary of Kansas City man was written by his widow with love

David Cromwell Jenkins and his wife, Debbie Borek, celebrated his 93rd birthday on Aug. 10.
David Cromwell Jenkins and his wife, Debbie Borek, celebrated his 93rd birthday on Aug. 10.

In the fourth column of the English-born doctor’s obituary Sunday it is stated: “David was a religion to his many friends.”

By the time one reached the bottom of that long, fittingly long, memorial to David Cromwell Jenkins, one devoutly wished there’d been a chance to join that religion.

The obituary was unusual in its length, and rare in its ability to capture the little things of an extraordinary life lived among us.

For that reason — knowing that some readers might have been put off by the 3,311 words, suspecting wrongly that it was padded with a lifetime of awards and board positions — The Star has reposted the page in full on KansasCity.com (also, Sunday editions are available for a week at newsstands).

Jenkins’ adoring wife, Debbie Borek, 61, wrote the piece, describing herself in it as “a passionate Anglophile since childhood, she felt she had met Lord Peter Wimsey (bon vivant British sleuth in a series of detective novels) in the flesh, and pursued him doggedly.”

Jane Rachel, a member of Jenkins’close circle of friends known as the Breakfast Group, thinks it was more of a mutual thing and that Borek — who married the ages-long bachelor Jenkins when he was 76; she was 44 — can be a bit depreciative of her place in this story.

“She really downplayed her role, especially in his last few years,” said Rachel, director of education and scientific development in the pathology department at St. Luke’s Hospital.

“He had difficult periods in his life, and she didn’t sugarcoat it,” Rachel noted.

Jenkins succumbed Jan. 9 to pneumonia complicated by Parkinson’s disease. As Debbie noted when the disease was diagnosed, the man who always seemed many years younger than he was suddenly “was every bit of 82.”

Reached by telephone at their Armour Hills home, Borek re-emphasized the high-level and personal home-centered care her husband had received from Metrocare Staffing.

In the obituary, Borek even brought up a long-lost love of her husband’s, “a real crackerjack” he met during the war but who slipped away, as Borek sagely observed, through a series of miscommunications that could have been cleared up “had they only had cell phones.”

Many have commented on the grace and wit of the piece; Borek said she is not a writer but members of her family are.

The dry humor would have been appreciated by Jenkins, who was as English as a London cab: upper-class accent, long quotes from Yeats, wide gap in his teeth, imperturbability and understated wit.

Not to mention the cricket and rugby. His 11th Commandment? “Do not attempt to explain cricket to Americans.”

“He would rarely break a smile,” Rachel said, “he’d just drop these gems and move on.”

“We all looked up to him. He was an inspiration, a great physician and a great teacher,” says Fred Plapp, who worked with him at the Community Blood Center. He is also a Breakfast Group member. “I wrote a textbook called ‘Essentials of Transfusion Medicine’ and dedicated it to him.”

Jenkins was on the faculty at the University of Kansas Medical Center and UMKC School of Medicine before working at the blood center, from which he retired in 1989.

Those “soggy doggies” referred to from his lectures? It’s a reference to old experiments in the dilution of blood.

“He was very eccentric, like the absent minded-professor,” says Plapp, now medical director of clinical laboratories at St. Luke’s Hospital. “Everyone fell in love with him.”

The self-effacing Jenkins could be trusted to zero in on the root of a problem, says Plapp, or “come up with the right witticism at the right time. He could quote just about anybody in classical literature.”

The Breakfast Group, a gathering of mostly medicos — Borek herself practices with the Mawd Pathology Group — has met every Friday for 35 years, in recent years at Jenkins’ home. On Friday, when Jenkins passed away, they were at the Classic Cookie as in the past.

“Debbie came to tell us and brought in the coffee,” Rachel said, explaining that the Gregory Boulevard cafe graciously serves Borek’s strong brew for the occasions. “It can walk in by itself.”

Borek agrees her husband was very private and acknowledged that he would have been appalled at the attention from the obit — at least, she thinks, at first. He would have objected to her planning his 90th birthday with 100 friends, too, she says, but he loved the surprise party.

“It was very rare of him to be photographed, he would go behind pillars, and it was hard to catch him smiling,” she says. For the tribute, she found a photo of him at the wheel of a sailboat.

As a sportsman, outdoorsman and environmentalist, he followed a frugal lifestyle — bicycle, well-worn clothing — being green decades before most had a clue of what it meant.

The obituary also tells of his youthful stutter and how he refused to let it stop him from joining the Royal Air Force; how he piloted the big, four-engine Lancaster bombers over Germany; how he later refused to talk about his 30 missions and dismissed his Distinguished Flying Cross from the Royal Air Force with: “Oh, they were handed out with the rations.”

Always mindful of World War II’s death tolls, including the German civilians in the cities he bombed, he would answer “peace” when someone told him “good night.”

And peace to you, Doctor Jenkins.

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