Kathryn Werhane Memorial

by Mark Campbell

What an honor to take the opportunity to share my fond memories of Kathryn Werhane and her manifold, decade-long contributions to Art With Elders. While her passing remains yet another reason to think of this year as one of our most collectively difficult, I more likely smile warmly than feel pangs of great sadness when I remember her.

I met Kathryn for the first time in the old Laguna Honda building shortly after hearing from our then Executive Director, Brent Nettle that we may have a new volunteer for our weekly classes. It was immediately apparent that we would soon be counting her among our most competent and reliable helpers. Sensitive, funny and incredibly dependable, she embodied all of our most sought-after qualities and they came conveniently wrapped in one wonderfully unique and magnetic personality.

It didn’t take long for Kathryn to become essential personnel. Soon a favorite of several of our, shall we say, more unique and celebrated students, she endeared herself to them and quickly found her own special keys to open each of their complicated emotional locks. This was a skill so generally rare and yet so apparent and refined in her that we soon offered her a position as assistant to the program director… which happened to be me at the time.

Having witnessed my care-free, and at-times probably too improvisational, approach to the role of Director back then, Kathryn heroically accepted the position and we enjoyed several years of close collaboration. I learned much from her patient consultation and guidance and when she finally accepted that I had likely absorbed all I could from her, she asked to step aside and work again for free as a volunteer, which she did until her last months before passing.

Always hopeful, stoic and intuitively compassionate, Kathryn barely let on that she had a serious health issue. Surrounded by existential realities and challenges in the work that we do, I remain forever impressed by Kathryn’s capacity to, despite her own monumental challenges and until her very final moments, conjure the power and capacity to encourage and support others. She will be often deeply missed and, even more often, joyfully and enthusiastically celebrated…

The photos below are from Kathryn Werhane’s retrospective art gallery show, Ephemeral, a memorial show organized by Debra Resnik, Kathryn’s partner of 43 years and curated by Mark Campbell and Barbara Ordahl.

After swimming the 100th Anniversary Joe Bruno GG Bridge swim on 9/18/2017 – photo by Gail Grynbaum
Claudia Ochoa and Deb Resnik with puppets made by Kathryn to communicate to her doctors.

Kathryn Werhane, beloved Dolphin Club member for the past six years, died of lung cancer at age 66 on July 17, 2020. The oldest girl in a family of 6 kids, she grew up mostly in rural towns of the midwest. Besides her mother, siblings and many nephews and nieces, she is survived by her primary chosen family members Debra Resnik (partner of 43 years) and Claudia Ochoa, and many long time devoted friends.

After college, Kathryn followed her best friend to San Francisco in 1974, where she soon came out, loud and proud. She quickly started volunteering for many of the lesbian political causes of the day and joined the emerging lesbian feminist culture. She apprenticed as a union printer, joined the Women’s Press Project and worked many years at the Feminist Bookstore News. Her passion for human, animal, and environmental justice continued throughout her life as she kept on raising her voice for change.

In the 90’s her interest in art led her back to school at SF State where she got a Masters in Graphic Design and started a computer graphics design business. After a second Masters in Geriatric Care Management, she worked as a care manager and taught art classes to disabled and senior populations, including Art With Elders at Laguna Honda Hospital. Making art for and with others in her everyday life was one of her greatest joys.

When Kathryn found open-water swimming and the Dolphin Club with its eclectic population and in its welcoming atmosphere, she realized quickly she had found her people. She became a regular swimmer and volunteer and an enthusiastic participant in out of cove swims including Alcatraz and Golden Gate. In 2015 she had the thrill of extending her open water adventures to the Hampstead Heath Ponds in North London. With her cancer diagnosis 2 1/2 years age, Kathryn continued to participate in swimming events, but as part of the land crew. Perhaps it was her Buddhist practice of many years that kept her calm and unflappable as a member of the timing team. She continued to swim in the cove up to the end by making gradual adjustments to her routine – fins, shorter swims, sticking closer to shore – proudly settling for an old goat Polar Bear in 2018-19. For the comfort and joy it brought her, swimming in the Bay was an essential activity.

Debra has asked friends wishing to honor Kathryn to make donations in her memory to the Dolphin Club.