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Kathleen 'Kat' Kinkade, 77; Pioneer Started Va. Commune

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kathleen "Kat" Kinkade, 77, a founding member of a rural Virginia commune called Twin Oaks Community, died July 3 of complications related to bone cancer. She had been a resident of Twin Oaks, about 35 miles southeast of Charlottesville, since its beginning in 1967.

Eighty-five income-sharing adults and 15 children continue the communal experiment Ms. Kinkade helped originate. Each member receives food, housing, health care and personal spending money from the community, whose income derives primarily from making high-quality rope hammocks, casual furniture, indexing books and tofu.

Her involvement with communal living began when she was a 36-year-old secretary and single mother in Los Angeles and happened to read "Walden Two," a utopian fantasy by Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. The novel imagines a self-contained communal society of 1,000 people who solve life's problems through behavioral engineering.

"I read 'Walden Two' throughout one day, breaking only to get up and pace the floor and shout, 'This is what I want!' " Ms. Kinkade told The Washington Post in 1998.

She wrote Skinner, asking whether there was a real Walden Two that she could join, but got no reply. A friend pointed out a small classified ad in a magazine from a D.C. cabdriver named Wayne who was interested in launching a Walden Two community. Ms. Kinkade and her daughter moved across the country to join Wayne's group house.

Wayne went his own way, and Ms. Kinkade married another boarder in the house. The couple eventually found a fellow "Walden Two" enthusiast who provided seed money to lease a small tobacco farm southeast of Charlottesville. She, her husband and her daughter were among the eight Twin Oaks founders.

Unlike thousands of other communes that sprang up in the 1960s only to succumb to the perplexities of shared living, Twin Oaks gradually began to flourish, despite early hardship and dissension. It grew to almost a hundred communards, became a self-sustaining land trust of 450 efficiently managed acres and began to thrive financially when it signed a long-term contract with Pier 1 for its hammocks.

Although she was involved in founding two other income-sharing communities -- in Missouri and Virginia -- she told The Post in 1998 that communal life had not measured up to her expectations.

"My mother was disappointed that Twin Oaks did not turn out to be the model for what the rest of our society would be," said her daughter, Dr. Josie Kinkade of Louisa, Va. "When she found out that it was really just a nice place for some middle-class people to live, she was disappointed."

Kinkade said she reminded her mother that she had created a "university of life," and she seemed satisfied with that assessment.

Ms. Kinkade was born in Seattle, grew up poor during the Depression and became the first person in her working-class family to go to college, when she attended the University of Washington for a year. She dropped out to marry an Army sergeant. When the marriage dissolved, she took her 4-year-old daughter to live in Mexico City, where she taught English to first-graders at a private school.

She returned to the United States in 1960, got a job as a secretary and became a folk dancer. She encountered "Walden Two" as an assignment for a class she was taking during night school. Although the novel was the inspiration for her communal vision, Twin Oaks, as it evolved, bore little resemblance to Skinner's utopian fantasy.

She quickly discovered communal living was devilishly difficult. "Freeloading hippies began to turn up," reporter Tamara Jones noted in a 1998 Washington Post magazine story. "Personality clashes made living cooperatively a constant challenge."

She found herself swamped with administrative chores and complaints that she was too authoritarian. Eventually, the community brought in facilitators to mediate the power struggle, and their recommendations resulted in more democratic governance.

Although Ms. Kinkade persevered, the challenge never got easier. "She left Twin Oaks once, 'with a man, but he wasn't mine,' " she once told The Post, "and she started a new commune that also frustrated and disappointed her. She ventured into the outside world for a while, then surprised herself by coming back."

She also got involved in sacred harp music through the nearby Yanceyville Church, where, as an atheist, she sang in the choir because she loved the harmonious, shape-note singing of the sacred harp tradition.

At 70, she moved into a tiny house in nearby Mineral (the first house she had ever owned) and enjoyed planting flowers and rescuing abandoned kittens. When she became too weak to live alone, Twin Oaks took her back in and community members tended to her needs until her death.

Ms. Kinkade's marriages to Donald Logsdon and George Griebe ended in divorce.

In addition to her daughter, from her first marriage, survivors include a granddaughter.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company