Kevin Sweeney hitch-hiked to Woodstock when he was 19 years old, 64 years ago. His death last Wednesday at his home on Baumgarten Road ended a self-made man’s extraordinary run as innovator, employer, town board member, fireman, town judge, ambulance center founder, philanthropist, art collector, generous host, caring father, grandfather and devoted husband and friend.
Brooklyn born and raised by his first generation Irish parents Francis and Beatrice Sweeney, hitchhiker-Kevin was rewarded for helping change a tire with a free ticket to a Maverick Costume ball circa 1948. Here he met 14-year-old Linda Lowengrund whom he courted, eventually following her to Antioch College; that is, Kevin followed and Linda attended. The couple was married in 1954at the Roman Catholic Church — today the Community Center. By then Kevin had been drafted for Korea but served out the war in Germany. He didn’t like the army, recalls his youngest child, Seamus, who further remembers Kevin telling of having worked shoveling sawdust but a single day at the Wittenberg Sawmill. Nor did he much like working in the merchant marines, which he left explaining, “I’ve found religion.” That devotion took the form of Columbia University which Kevin attended on the GI bill, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1958. So we know what Kevin did not want to do in life. How exactly did Linda and Kevin Sweeney put together a small company in 1963 (in a shed borrowed from Jerry Jeronomic) using designs for molds pioneered by the US Army, to eventually make a few million in the wilds of Woodstock?
Memory is a bit misty but a good place to start was their attending a Senate sub-committee meeting awarding the Sweeneys the right to compete in bids on simulated injuries (traditionally controlled largely by Alderson Research Company). “Simulaids” became the John Paul Jones of the industry and so began a long, hard fight. Changing locations often, struggling to make payroll and raise a growing family, Kevin found his calling innovating designs for injury simulations just as ambulance squads and Search and Rescue units were coming into their own.
Sweeney designed simulated chest wounds, broken bones, burns, head wounds & traumas, puncture wounds from synthetic material (as a Cub Scout, I witnessed a replicated ski-pole puncture; when the demonstrator’s hand-held pump ran low on “blood” and began to spew and spatter, I fainted.) Kevin went into consultation with the New York City Fire Department (no Irish there!) developing a “ladder carry-down” model named “Rescue Randy,” before which drills were practiced with dummies made of rope.
Though no snob, Kevin Sweeney was highly opinionated and — if convinced a wrong needed righting — fast became a crusader. Outraged that Woodstock had no ambulance squad, he waded into battle with the town’s Old Boy network. Seemingly, the Fire Department felt it had gotten along just fine without an ambulance, and strongly resisted what today we (and the Firefighter funding) consider nothing less than essential. Thanks to Dr. Norman Burg, Dot Wright, Richie Mellert and — carrying the spear — Kevin Sweeney, we have our Rescue Squad.
Josh Koplovitz — who ran for Town Board alongside Sweeney’s Democratic bid in 1971 — recalls Kevin often responding to a firefighters pager during campaigns. Evidently, the Fire Department was by then forced to suffer both the indignity of the newcomer’s innovation and his courage. Sworn into office in ‘72 as (an unpaid) Town Boardman, Sweeney championed many a liberal cause — among them, zoning regs removing large neon signs and revolving gas station turrets. A memorable re-election slogan (probably coined by Bob Haney) bolstered a campaign with absolutely no burning issues. “Remember Ricks Road!” Kevin thundered at the end of every speech. Exactly what it was we were to remember was, of course, besides the point.
Fast accompanying such civic contribution came Kevin’s election as (again unpaid) Town Justice of the Peace. Employing his sense of humor as often as the gavel, Sweeney heard a young Mitch Rapaport explain, “Your Honor my father feels that the removal of his neon PIZZA sign is un-American and damages his pursuit of inalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” Kevin performed his best bite-down-on-lemon smirk and fired back, “There was no pizza in America — or in Italy — when the constitution was signed, nor does life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness neceSAR-i-ly involve baked dough with toppings. Tell your father to remove the sign immediately or appear in this court himself next Wednesday night and…young man, if your father does not remove that sign…tell him to bring a toothbrush.” The sign was removed; Mr. Rapaport was not.
By this time the Sweeneys had bought the grand Wetterau property on Glasco, where many a memorable party was thrown; Simulaids found its home (of late the Overlook Press) across from the Bearsville Garage, eventually expanding into the rambling Headquarters behind what was then the Country Pie (and next became The Watering Troff, now Gypsy Wolf). The walls of Simulaids served as a museum for good, bad, and indifferent Woodstock Art. Kevin’s hard-earned but fast spent gelt had made him an auctioneer’s dream for he purchased as much out of pity as pleasure. In later years he gave of his immense collection generously to (at least) The Woodstock School of Art and The Woodstock Day School auctions.
Socially, Kevin, Linda and the kids were embraced by Woodstock; Kevin carving out a niche as a friend, poker-crony, boating enthusiast, banker, advisor, and host-extraordinaire to a rough ‘n ready intelligentsia including the Haneys, Ballantines, Cantines, Wetteraus, Gilmores, Moncures, Levitts, Kislins,Traums, Bernards, Baers, Schambach, various painters, (Angelochs, Fortesses) theater people