Catherine "Kitty" Houghton and The Preciousness of Life

I can see her strapping on her Kelty pack and with that knowing smile that never seemed to leave her lips, heading off to face whatever life and fate would bring her. And so she did last week.
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There is no greater gift than to know the preciousness of life. Once you realize it, every moment is enhanced and however long you live, you have a far longer life. Of all the people I have known, the person who grasped that essential fact the youngest and perhaps the most fully was Catherine "Kitty" Houghton. Kitty was an ebullient presence who danced through life as if in a dream, helping those who needed help and admiring the abilities and achievements of those who fell far short of her attainments, always with her sparkling, inquisitive eyes finding in life nothing but endless far horizons.

Kitty and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Nepal from 1964 to 1966. We were stationed in different parts of the kingdom in remote mountain villages several days from a road. You cannot live among the Nepalese without grasping one reality: When you die, your body may be burned in a pyre, but your spirit lives on, meshing with the world. I've thought of that reality often these last few days as I read the stories of how 70-year-old Kitty died. It reminds me that her manner of death doesn't matter, for in Nepal, you learn that individual life is but an instant over which we have the illusion of control, but life takes us and does what it wants with us -- and one day bids us goodbye.

Kitty never did just one thing, but several, each with passionate intensity. Last week, she flew across the country from her home in northern California to attend a board meeting of the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, where she attended high school. She was in the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Littleton, moving gracefully onward from one event to the next when a man came into the hotel and stabbed her to death. The sick, conspiratorial American mindset took hold and among the comments to the news stories are several about how Kitty must have known the 37-year-old man. No, she did not, it was a random knife in the night, and the man sits in jail pleading not guilty.

Kitty's unique quality had little to do with her Ph.D., the fourteen languages that she spoke, the superb skier that she was at the top of her Berkeley collegiate team, how she flew her small plane around the country the way you and I drive our cars, her abilities as a singer and musician, nothing about her accomplishments as top commercial officer in the Foreign Service.It was the human character. At the center of her personality was a profound modesty, unlike anyone I have ever known. I'm not talking about a studious, calculated modesty so useful in a career. I'm not talking about insecurity. I'm talking about someone who grasped her place in the universe. It was the mindset we all should have.

Beyond that -- and this was something that sometimes personally embarrassed me -- she was in awe of the accomplishments of others. She could do ten awesomely good things and I might do one, but it was my act she wanted to talk about and praise. She did some of the most daring things, but it was whatever I did that she insisted on talking about.

When Kitty and I went to Nepal in the Peace Corps in 1964, it was a time when it was unclear whether Americans could live in a place like the impoverished mountain kingdom and whether the Peace Corps was a short-lived quixotic idea or something that could live. It took a certain gumption for a young man to sign up and go to Nepal, but in those years, it took far more than that for a young woman to do so. Nothing troubled Kitty. Even in our training program in Oregon, she was always looking out for others, seeing how she could help.

I can still see Kitty in Kathmandu, when she got her assignment to one of the most remote and difficult of places. I can see her strapping on her Kelty pack and with that knowing smile that never seemed to leave her lips, heading off to face whatever life and fate would bring her. And so she did last week.

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