Obituary: Kenneth Wooden, 1935-2023 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Kenneth Wooden, 1935-2023 

Child advocate, author, and investigative reporter helped safeguard generations of children from abuse

Published July 10, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. | Updated July 10, 2023 at 3:51 p.m.

click to enlarge Kenneth Wooden - COURTESY
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  • Kenneth Wooden
Kenneth Wooden, 87, of Bolton, Vt., and Kissimmee, Fla., passed away during a majestic sunset in Colchester, Vt., on July 3, 2023, surrounded by his loving family, following a fiercely valiant 22-year battle with prostate cancer.
Born on October 18, 1935, in Burlington, N.J., Ken overcame a childhood of poverty, severe learning disabilities and a speech impediment to become his family’s first college graduate, a celebrated writer, educator, speaker, investigative reporter, TV news producer and world-renowned child advocate. Ken credited his amazing wife, editor and lifelong partner, Martha, for making all his successes possible.

A proud veteran of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, Ken lived his life with zeal, reveling in the company of his large and adoring family, as well as thousands of friends from all walks of life. His many passions included his County Donegal Irish heritage, American history, the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, the New York Yankees, restoring antiques, Italian opera, winemaking, playing pinochle, cultivating flowers, Mediterranean cooking, entertaining in his “Kenny’s Irish Pub” woodshed and, most especially, “polishing the jewel” — gardening, mowing, and landscaping the breathtaking acreage of his remote cabin property nestled within Camel’s Hump State Park.

Ken and Martha first visited Vermont in the summer of 1970 and were instantly smitten with the beauty of the Green Mountains, the serenity of a culture in tune with nature, and the honesty, grit, and generosity of its residents. In 1974, they bought the historic Honey Hollow Camp in Bolton and spent summers and holidays there for a decade before moving to Vermont year-round, where they divided  their time between camp and their longtime residence in the heart of Shelburne Village.

As the author of multiple juvenile-justice books, including the Pulitzer-nominated Weeping in the Playtime of Others, which exposed corruption within America’s juvenile prison system, Ken delivered expert testimony to the United States Congress on 16 occasions and contributed groundbreaking child-welfare reporting to dozens of major media outlets, including The New York Times, CBS' “60 Minutes,” Reader's Digest, and The Chicago Sun Times. He took special pride in his role as lead investigator on "Sins of the Fathers", a 1988 NBC Nightly News story which was the first-ever nationally broadcast report on the Roman Catholic Church's systemic coverup of rampant child abuse committed by its clergy.

Ken researched, wrote and created the Child Lures Prevention education program, which teaches youngsters safety strategies to protect against abuse. Through this program — continuously published without philanthropic or public sector support for 40+ years — Ken helped safeguard generations of children and families around the world and earned scores of accolades, including an Emmy Award, a U.S. Dept. of Justice Award for Public Service, an American Legion Public Spirit Award and his favorite, the Giraffe Award — “for sticking one’s neck out.”

Ken was a remarkable fighter, possessed with undying determination. Whether fighting for justice for children, fighting a speeding ticket all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court or bravely fighting his cruelly tenacious cancer, he always maintained his resolve, positivity and good humor. To symbolize his determination, at the age of 75, he got his first tattoo: the word “NUTS” on his right forearm, a reference to Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe’s famous 1944 response to the Nazis demanding the U.S.A. surrender at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Ken loved showing his tattoo whenever he met someone new and always gave an impromptu history lesson while urging them to join him in declaring, “NUTS!” to all life’s setbacks.

A romantic and poet until the end, when all treatment options for battling his cancer were depleted, Ken took the opportunity to pen a poignant farewell Christmas letter to his friends and loved ones, closing with the words, “As I now realize — and accept — that my ‘Sun’ is setting, there is no fear, only joy for life and the chance it gave this poor Depression kid of the 1930s. It’s been a creative, exciting journey with no regrets. With a big smile, I wish you one and all the best in life. Cherish it, and continue to enjoy its many wonderful gifts. I love you….”

Ken is survived by his loving wife of 65 years, Martha Braun Wooden; his adoring children Grace Gilbert-Davis (Essex Junction, Vt.), Rosemary Webb (Hinesburg, Vt.), Jennifer Mitchell (Williston, Vt.) and John Allen Wooden (Studio City, Calif.); in-laws Jeff Davis, Scott Webb, Carl Mitchell, Anna Liza Bella and Tess Barbach; grandchildren Calvin and Sarah Gilbert, Sophia and Preston Webb, Chase and Grant Mitchell, Simone and Ward Wooden; and great-grandson, Finn Gilbert. He is predeceased by his mother, Grace Theresa Ward; father, Edward F. Wooden; and brothers Carl, Edward and Richard Wooden.
For friends wishing to celebrate Ken’s remarkable life, the family invites you to walk amongst the noble stone walls, burbling streams and rolling meadows of his cherished Honey Hollow and remember Ken as you knew him, there within the “sublime tapestry of nature,” where his gentle spirit will linger forever.

Ken’s Favorite Quote: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no 'brief candle' to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations." – George Bernard Shaw

An informal celebration of life for family and close friends will be held at Ken and Martha’s beloved Honey Hollow Camp from 2 to 4 p.m., on July 22, 2023. Condolences and memories may be shared by visiting awrfh.com. In lieu of flower arrangements, please direct donations to Holly’s House Child and Adult Victim Advocacy Center, P.O. Box 4125, Evansville, IN, 47724.
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