The Carolina back story of 'Slomo' the boardwalk legend

akenney@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2014 

Dr. John Kitchin, who was raised on a dairy farm near Wake Forest, N.C. quit a medical career to pursue his passion: skating on the boardwalk of San Diego’s Pacific Beach.


— The sight of a rapturous retiree gliding the San Diego boardwalk in a pristine one-footed rollerblading pose seems like classic California. The geographic truth becomes more obvious when Slomo opens his mouth.

This suntanned philosopher’s undiluted Southern accent points to the half-century tale that catapulted him on Wednesday to The New York Times and accompanying fame.

Basically, Slomo the roller-blader is a former neurologist and the transformed son of a very deep-rooted Wake Forest family.

“I’d say that before Slomo I became the typical, institutionalized educated Western man…and frankly, I intended just to work myself on into oblivion,” the 70-year-old doctor says in a video that debuted on one of the world’s largest websites.

“...But now I experience myself like the tip of a great iceberg of consciousness.”

To explain Slomo’s story, it might be best to start with his legal name: John Kitchin.

Deep North Carolina roots

“There was no family in North Carolina more prominent than the Kitchins,” said Robert L. McMillan Jr., a long-time Raleigh attorney familiar with the family.

There was William Walton Kitchin, the early 1900s governor and one of John Kitchin’s great-uncles. Claude Kitchin, a majority leader in the U.S. Congress, was another of the brothers. Thurman Kitchin, Slomo’s grandfather, was president of Wake Forest College.

(Above: SLOMO Trailer from Josh Izenberg on Vimeo).

John Kitchin grew up on a dairy farm in Wake Forest, his father having quit the legal profession for a simpler life. But Kitchin was stepping up soon enough, from Wake Forest High School to Duke University and then onto Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem.

His years at the latter school, now part of Wake Forest University, set up a series of coincidences and reunions that led to “Slomo,” the 16-minute documentary that ran front-and-center on the Times website. In particular, the size of the class of 1969 – fewer than a hundred students – guaranteed that the men’s lives would cross in unexpected ways.

“We were a very close class – played a lot of football, sports, studied together and really were a close-knit group of fellas,” said Paul Izenberg, now a plastic surgeon.

He remembers John Kitchin as a young man versed in opera and the classics, preparing for a career in neurology.

“He was a very appealing character – a good-looking guy, kind of blond hair, a great set of teeth,” said Richard Maschal, a former Charlotte Observer reporter who met Kitchin through friends.

A serendipitous meeting

So Kitchin was eccentric and impassioned and naturally likeable – but Izenberg never expected to find his old friend as a cult hero gliding down the boardwalk during a trip to San Diego some 40 years later.

“My wife and daughter said, ‘We saw this guy slow-rollerblading up and down the beach,” Izenberg said.

“The first time, I didn’t recognize him. (But) on the way back, I saw him standing there – and it was my old friend John Kitchin.”

Kitchin had quit neurology of frustration in 1998, when he was in his mid 50s. By the time he encountered Izenberg he was famous on the boardwalk, skating for hours on end when he wasn’t recording songs or writing books.

Izenberg later mentioned their encounter to his son, Josh Izenberg. The young filmmaker, just entering his 30s, was on the phone with Kitchin soon after.

“I was really struck by the way he talked, his accent,” Josh Izenberg said. “He has a sort of candor, right off the bat, an open, honest guy.”

Over the next three years, Josh Izenberg made several trips to from San Francisco to film Kitchin and his Slomo alter-ego.

A fundraiser, with backing from several college pals, helped pay for a cameraman, who roller-bladed behind Slomo on the boardwalk, capturing some of the hundreds of high-fives and wowed bystanders that make up a week in the existence Kitchin assumed when he quit neurology 15 years ago.

“All I can say is when I started doing exactly what I wanted to, it seems like everybody liked me a lot more than when I was doing what they wanted me to do,” Kitchin said.

Doing what he wants

Kitchin still comes back to North Carolina every few months, to meet family and visit graves. In a way, his life now mirrors his childhood here. His father, like him, gave up a demanding career for something simpler.

“The more I find out about Zen Buddhism, the more I’m thinking my father kind of slipped into a state where he was appreciating being alive and being the father and the provider of the family,” Kitchin said in an interview on Thursday.

“ ... That was a huge moral position, and it’s very, very strong in North Carolina.”

Yet his own fulfillment is self-centered, not weighted by social demands like his father’s Carolina morals were, he said. He describes himself as a conservative, but he believes that the onset of a sort-of utopia will give people the time to find their spirituality.

“I just worked ... for so many years – and I said well, Jesus, if ... there’s no absolute certainty there’s a heaven or anything after this, what’s the value of all this anyway, if a person doesn’t stop and examine what he himself is?”

And for this Carolina man, bliss comes on roller-blades, 2200 miles from a dairy farm on Burlington Mills Road.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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