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First Poet Laureate: Kat Everitt, 2018-2020

Kathleen “Kat” Everitt was 78 when she passed away from ongoing health complications on July 1. A former teacher and nurse, mom to three children and six stepchildren, grandma of 11, great-grandma of seven, wife, singer, songwriter, poet, radio host — Everitt was known as many things, but perhaps most of all, as a storyteller.

Even in her illness, Everitt inspired many with her continued insistence on sharing the beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories that she carried.

She used her voice — at the open mics she and husband Den McCue hosted in Jackson, or while mentoring Amador County youth learning to recite poetry, singing in bands or speaking on-air with her two radio programs at the Blue Mountain Radio in West Point — or her words — from social media posts sharing her ongoing struggles with pain and sickness alongside inspirational poems, quotes, or prose, to her weekly poetry column in the Ledger Dispatch — to connect with and inspire others, to share a deep love of writing, storytelling, and creativity in its many forms.

Everitt was named Amador County’s first poet laureate in 2018, championing the literary arts in rural communities through partnership with the Amador Arts Council.

Amador Arts Council Executive Director Meghan O’Keefe said: “Kat Everitt was the pure embodiment of what it means to be called to arts and cultural work. She exemplified and expanded the roles of Amador County Poet Laureate and was a vigilant and relentless advisor to Amador County Arts Council.”

O’Keefe said of Everitt: “If Kat were here today, she would say, again: ‘Everyone is an artist and has a story to tell in a creative way. Everyone must come together and love and support one another. Just get creative and just do it!’”

Perhaps more than she shared her own creative work, Everitt promoted and encouraged the art of many, many others.

In 2020, Everitt collaborated on an anthology of poetry and photography made by Amador and Calaveras writers and artists, which was published by the Ledger Dispatch where Everitt wrote a weekly column, “River and Rhymes.” Everitt also published a collection of lyrics written by Amador and Calaveras songwriters, and established the Amador Storytelling Guild, which was a monthly event at Amador Arts where writers, poets, and storytellers could gather and share their work.

At every Open Mic, Everitt was there, smiling and taking photos and learning the names of each performer and attendee, so that she could later tag them in her post on Facebook.

Often, she’d sing alongside her husband, who would play the banjo, bass ukulele or guitar, whom she first sang with in high school over 50 years ago. Then high school sweethearts — she enrolled at St. Charles Catholic School, he at the public school — they met on stage performing musical theater and dated for two years, from 1963 to 1965, until Everitt went off to nursing college, and McCue to the Navy, where he continued his passion for performing and music in the Navy band, the “Bluejackets.”

The two wouldn’t see each other again until decades later, when Everitt would reach out to McCue at an email address she somehow uncovered at her former high school’s library. Like giddy teenagers, they arranged to meet, and found that despite their having lived separate lives with careers, marriages, and grown children, the old flame never went out.

“We moved in together and our lives blossomed,” said McCue, who relocated to California to be with Everitt.

The couple lived in the Bay Area together for several years, performing in a band called Compass Rose, until they decided to look for somewhere more affordable to live, and landed in Pioneer, where they enmeshed themselves in the community and the arts. Their radio program, “Down From the Mountain,” spotlighted local musical talent, and on Everitt’s program, “Everywoman’s Hour,” she interviewed hundreds of local women from Calaveras and Amador counties who she found to “make a difference in their communities.” The program was on air from 2013 until 2020, and has been archived on the Leger Dispatch website.

Everitt’s devotion to helping, supporting, and encouraging others was evident in her career paths, both as a high school English teacher and elementary school teacher, and as a nurse for over 40 years. In her long public health career, Everitt provided care for members of both the Hells Angels and Black Panthers, and “counseled John Wayne on his cancer,” according to her husband.

“Her whole life was giving the public love and joy,” said McCue.

Everitt’s oldest daughter, Kraianne Souza, of Stockton, said that her mom “just always tried to be her best person, and inspired that in others as well.”

Souza said: “One of my mom’s really biggest motivators, something she always taught us kids, was to just accept people, how they are, where they are at in that moment in their lives. ’Cause that’s what people need the most, is to be understood and acknowledged and looked at for the point where they were in their life at that time. And my mom — I think that’s why so many people felt that they were so special to her because not a lot of people do that in your life, just accept you and take you how you are.”

As a caregiver, a mom, or a friend, Everitt had a way of making each person in her life feel supported.

“If you’re going through something hard, she’s just completely there for you and accepting of where you’re at. If you’re doing something not healthy, she is helping you through that and not judging you through doing something that might not be socially acceptable. I’ve seen her reach out to people so often that were like that, and that was just one of her greatest strengths,” Souza explained.

An outpouring of heartfelt appreciation, fond memories, and expressions of grief followed Everitt’s passing. On Facebook, where Everitt shared daily with over 1,200 friends, such comments came from former students, close friends, and those whose own creative paths were nurtured by the poet.

“I loved the way you made everyone important,” read one comment. Another: “She has been for me an ‘older sister’ who I have counted on. … She leaves a gigantic hole in my life.”

Some of these friends and creative collaborators gathered to remember Everitt at the West Point Open Mic on Sunday, July 17.

Nedra Russ, host of the open mic and friend of Everitt’s, spoke of Everitt and McCue, saying, “They did so much for our community and for people to understand what we do and who we are and how talented we are.”

A photo of Everitt and her friend Tim Dunn, who also recently passed away, was placed on a table in front of a vase of roses that grew from a cutting Dunn, an avid gardener, had given Russ.

“So there’s some people that are feeling an empty space, as we all are,” Russ said before sharing a poem written for her by Everitt, inspired by Russ’ love of trains.

She read, “We travel trains with memories that are so ancient, we don’t know if we’re coming or we are going, and on these rails through all these trees, and when it comes to where we go, we exit all bemused with wonder and speak in hushed and lovely words of where we’ve been and what we now know.”

Russ and other local singers, songwriters and musicians performed songs, many with words written for, by, or with Everitt, or else in tribute to her.

Songwriter Debora Olguin played a song, “Song for Buffalo Dancer,” which Everitt had written and previously given Olguin the lyrics to. A few days after Everitt’s passing, Olguin set the lyrics to music. “Kat had a big hand in this,” Olguin said.

West Point resident and singer-songwriter Susan Preece gave a moving tribute with her renditions of the classic folk ballad “Four Strong Winds,” and “Eagle When She Flies,” by Dolly Parton.

Friends gathered around McCue, giving him hugs and condolences.

“She was my life,” he said.

Tears were shed, but there was also laughter and song —- perhaps the best tribute to a woman who dedicated her life to uplifting others.

“Kat was an amazing influencer on creative energy itself. Whatever she touched, it became better, it became more, and she had the energy to invigorate whatever she did, whatever creative project, whatever poetry she wrote. And songs were always in her head,” said Russ, who said Everitt was the first person she collaborated with as a songwriter.

“She had a way of making everybody want to shine and be the best they could be,” said Russ, who plans to paint a bench that will be dedicated to Everitt and placed in front of the Blue Mountain Center.

Even her poetry had a way of uplifting.

With a unique style — her meandering poems read more like contemplative stories, often punctuated by an exuberant use of capitalization for emphasis. Everitt’s writing encapsulated her experience living in her beloved “Upcountry,” which her daughter says she loved because of “the environment, the wilderness and the trees and the rivers.” Reading her poetry, one could assume she loved the people, too.

In her poem “Upcountry Women,” Everitt wrote: “When upcountry women gather, / it is no tea party for the duchess / of whatever, no, it’s a convocation / of wildnesses and woolinesses of / natural Being in creative and so / powerfully brilliant strength and / courage and response-abilities, / that we all feel at the wholeness / of flights of birds, or the ways the / mountain deer browse dry brush, / with ableness that more than / inspires, more than gives hope.”

West Point resident Suzanne Smith remembers when Everitt wrote the poem, following a “silly Grocery Outlet party where we each brought a bottle of wine and a hunk of cheese from Grocery Outlet.” The group of women met at a friend’s house, and each brought a bottle of wine which was then disguised in paper bags. The women made a game of studying each wine carefully, noting their observations on worksheets.

“It was the kind of thing we upcountry women do to entertain ourselves. The laughter and camaraderie was wonderful. Once again Kat saw so much more in our simple gathering. She saw the deep connection we all share,” said Smith.

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