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Oct. 19, 2018
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Lanier loses a treasure in Len Kirkham

By Pamela A. Keene
 
Those who knew Len Kirkham were always amazed at how much they didn’t really know. For instance, he raced in the first Whitbread, a round-the-world sailboat race out of England, in 1973 on the British team. He read everything he could about Winston Churchill and was a student of British history. He circumnavigated the globe several times, in the early days using only his sextant to find his way.
 
He and his wife Robin fostered youngsters. In the last several years of his life, he traveled the world as a marina consultant, with multiple trips to China and Colombia. And he and Robin shared amazing adventures during the nearly 30 years they were married. They sailed and raced together, they traveled together and shared a love that was evident to all who knew them.
 
Len Kirkham passed away from a long battle with cancer on December 11. He died at home, just weeks before his and Robin’s 30th wedding anniversary.
 
“I just thought we’d have more time,” Robin said recently in an interview at their home in Buford as she sat on the sofa with their rescue dog Corky on her lap. She was surrounded by reminders of Len, from the signed Thomas Hoyne lithograph of a sailing ship to his nearby library filled with all the Harry Potter novels, World Atlases, dozens of miniature models of Polish Soldiers and an antique barograph for predicting weather conditions.
 
Robin shared stories about Len, who she met in a restaurant in her native New Jersey long ago. “He was so special,” she said. “He treated everyone he met like friends, but he was also very British and proper.”
 
Robin said that Len didn’t intend to be a shipwright. “He was going to be a carpenter,” Robin said, “but for his final project, he was assigned to build something out of wood that he’d never built before, so he decided to build a sailboat. At the time, he didn’t sail. His instructor told him, ‘Now that you’ve built it, go sail it,’ and that’s just what Len did. He took it to the water and it was love.”
 
He worked an indentured apprenticeship for seven years to learn everything he could about being a shipwright, from how to select the best trees for the wood to what went where and how. Then he bought a boat and “decided he was going to go sailing for a while,” Robin said. “And then he did his first solo circumnavigation with a sextant.”
 
Along the way, he furthered his education, earning several masters degrees, and adding to his life experiences. “Len didn’t read, he studied,” Robin said. “He was always working to learn more.”
 
He and Robin moved to Atlanta for her job as an engineer. Len began reaching out to the boating and sailing community, working on boats, not only in Georgia, but across the country. Robin retired from her engineering job and now teaches mathematics at East Hall High School.
 
Len was well-known and respected around the world, but when you met him, he was kind, proper and humble. You’d never have known about all the life experiences and adventures he had lived. Here is his obituary, which sums up his life best:
 
Leonard T. Kirkham, longtime resident of Buford, passed away at home on December 11, 2017.  He was 70 years old.
 
Born in Birmingham, England, Len attended primary school in Germany and then entered unique apprenticeship training as a shipwright. He achieved several degrees in economics and media including MBA, DMS, and MBIM.
 
Honored to be a part of the British sailing team for the first Whitbread Round the World Race, Len subsequently completed several solo circumnavigations of the globe. A renowned navigator, tactician, and captain, he won international titles in several classes of racing yachts.
 
An ardent British historian, he traveled to view all the lands once held by the British Empire. It was while wandering the world in 1985 that he found himself in New Jersey where he met his wife Robin, and the wandering was greatly slowed (but not stopped). He is survived by Robin, his foster daughter Christelle and her daughter Aliyah, his children Steve and Helen, and several brothers and a sister in England.
 
An avid traveler, Len once wrote, “Whether it was in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, the dry plains of Zululand, the desert of Ethiopia, or the coastal resorts of New Jersey, the kindness and goodness of my fellow man always prevailed.” Fluent in several languages and conversant in many more, Len was always able to order a beer in the native tongue.
 
The world has lost a great treasure. We are all richer for having known him. A memorial celebrating his life will be scheduled in the coming weeks.

Posted online 12/27/17
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