Embracing Time: Professor Advocates for the Next Generation
He’s worked in war and famine zones and served in a risky United Nations peace operation. He’s arranged peace talks between feuding warlords, gotten caught in ambushes and had to flee from dangerous people and places.
Ken Menkhaus wouldn’t start a story about his career that way.
Granted, it hasn’t always been the quiet academic life he’d once envisioned. In 35 years of researching one of the world’s most tumultuous places, he’s survived some scary stuff. But he dismisses a narrative defined by those terrifying moments. He insists that his isn’t the story that needs to be told. He’d rather draw attention to the bravery, determination and struggles of the many Somalis working to feed their families and bring peace to their war-torn country.
Too often those living in untenable situations don’t get a say in their fate. He’s felt that truth from impoverished rural America to violence-weary Somalia, and most recently, among people with the fatal neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The Davidson College professor is a leading expert on the Horn of Africa. He’s advised the United Nations (UN), the World Bank and the United States government. He’s met residents, relief workers and rulers, shepherds, strongmen and soldiers-for-hire: “the saints and sinners; missionaries and mercenaries.”
“With international policy,” he tells students, “you’re often choosing between the best of bad options.”
He feels that way about ALS, which he was diagnosed with in 2018 after a year of troubling symptoms.
While he feels its presence in many ways, he’s grateful that its slow progression in his body has given him the opportunity to advocate for those suffering from the disease’s cruelest symptoms.
Because Menkhaus doesn’t just analyze the world’s wounds—he wants to figure out the best ways to heal them. Since getting that terrible diagnosis, he’s harnessed his policy expertise to push for better ALS care services and to help find a cure.
And though he’s more likely to drive a golf cart around Davidson than ride with a flak jacket in an armored personnel carrier through Somalia these days, that sense of mission pervades.
“I’ve always thought of Ken as Davidson’s Indiana Jones,” says Julio Ramirez, a fellow professor and close friend. “He’s this easy-going, mild-mannered, incredibly intelligent college professor who I picture slipping off campus, donning his fedora, and heading off on another international adventure.
“I still see him that way, it’s just that now, the adventure is a lot more personal.”
Becoming an Advocate
Menkhaus kept his diagnosis to himself at first.
He’d played tennis as a Division I college athlete, then later for fun and in early 2017, fell during a match.
“My brain said go,” he says, “but my legs said no.”
It kept happening. He’d lose his balance for no apparent reason, and his walking pace slowed. He’d find it hard to catch his breath during an easy walk. He turned to specialists to solve the mystery.
He was 56 when he got the ALS diagnosis in March of 2018. His wife Karin’s parents were visiting from Sweden and he didn’t want to ruin a happy time, so he didn’t tell her until after they left two weeks later. They eventually told their children, but generally kept the news within a tight circle of family and close friends for a year.
“It’s devastating to hear that you’ve got an incurable, paralyzing disease with an average three-year life expectancy,” he says. “It’s a terrible way to die—it’s just a horrible disease.
“I took that year to process the diagnosis, and take stock, and read as much as I could to understand the ALS ecosystem. I continued to teach and consult and live my life,” he says. “I didn’t share the diagnosis at first because I didn’t want people to treat me like ‘Dead Man Walking.’”
The C. Louise Nelson Political Science Professor started a new intellectual journey. He pored over studies and talked to his brother, Pete, a medical doctor, and friends like Ramirez, a neuroscientist. Once he went public, he published articles, including an essay for the Joe Martin ALS Foundation. Martin, from Davidson’s class of 1962, died from the disease in 2006.
“You may be in shock as you read this,” Menkhaus writes in the essay, I have ALS, now what?. “I felt like a zombie for the first several days, like I was walking in the world but was no longer of it. It took me a few weeks before the sense of shock began to fade.
“Try to avoid making major decisions after the diagnosis that will later feel like rash actions,” he advises. “Give yourself time to let this new reality sink in. You’ll know when your mind starts to clear, and at that point you can begin to address the many, many decisions ALS forces upon us.”
He also produced a series of educational videos with the ALS Association, interviewing medical professionals and people living with ALS. In the interviews he asks thoughtful, practical questions about breathing function, physical therapy and managing respiratory issues associated with the disease.
His slow progression has allowed him to do things many others with ALS can’t. His speech remains unaffected. He walks for exercise and often takes a loop around campus with a cane or rollator.
For a medical research project, he wears sensors around his wrists and ankles to measure his movements and muscle strength. He encourages people with ALS to participate in research when possible.
Menkhaus knows how unusual his case is and feels deep compassion for those with more advanced ALS and their caregivers. His current good fortune, if you can call it that, compels him to advocate for them as long as he’s able to.
“I hope that we’ll someday find a way to make this and other neurological diseases manageable,” he says, “and the dream is to one day make it reversible.”
Menkhaus often compares the ALS advocacy world to the crises in Somalia.
“You don’t have the tools to predict the next conflict, there’s no end in sight, and those afflicted don’t feel like they’ve been heard,” he says. “I’ve come to appreciate the frustration Somalis must feel when it comes to having a conversation about ending the suffering—it’s always controlled by foreigners. It’s the same for ALS—people diagnosed with it don’t understand why this has happened to them, why a cure can’t be found, and want more of a voice. Both Somalis and people with ALS demand a greater sense of urgency from those purporting to help them.”
The ALS Association recruited him as a board member in 2020, and he now chairs its care services committee.
“What I love about Ken is that he brings a very personal knowledge about living with ALS, and there’s always a scholarly overlay,” says Scott Kauffman, the association’s incoming board chair. “We’ll talk about a situation, and he’ll come back with a report—six pages long, single-spaced, analyzing it from an academic perspective, and proposing possible solutions.”
Menkhaus weighs the ethics and implications of everything from experimental treatments to trial studies to equitable patient access. He monitors online forums and talks to people with ALS and caregivers about their needs, opinions, and approaches to dealing with the disease.
The ALS space isn’t an easy place to navigate. Kauffman, whose son Stephen, 37, has lived nearly 10 years with ALS, says as in any community, people disagree.
“We work with people from all walks of life, socioeconomically, politically and religiously. We’re living in a very divided world, and things can get tense,” Kauffman says. “Ken has that calm, scholarly demeanor, and he also has a great sense of humor, which is a skill set the world needs more of right now to defuse tense situations.”
Menkhaus also brings his policy expertise into the classroom.
On a balmy fall morning, he and 25 students in his “Introduction to Policy Analysis” class discussed institutional conflict—in government, corporations, academia and non-profits. He wants them clear-eyed when they enter those worlds.
In making or changing policy, he says, you must question: What is the motivation? Who would benefit? Who could get hurt?
He urges them to seek out people and publications with differing viewpoints.
“I loved the way he lectured, he really pushed you to think of both sides of every issue,” says Savannah Dukes, who graduated in 2020 and now works as a McKinsey & Company consultant specializing in health care. “The way he taught me to think and synthesize information has really come to life in my job.
“He made it really exciting to learn.”
Mentor to Many
Many Davidson students have considered Menkhaus a loyal, truth-telling mentor with a seemingly endless array of international contacts.
His humor often came through in lectures, and occasionally in grading, Dukes says, including a time when he scrawled on the margins of her paper explaining “that the terror group I wrote about wasn’t up for interviews.”
During her second year at Davidson, she represented the college as a delegate for the U.S. Naval Academy’s annual Foreign Affairs Conference, “because of doors he opened,” she says. “I appreciated the way he invested in students—he opened so many doors that led to so many amazing opportunities.”
In 2019, she and Menkhaus went to Nairobi, Kenya to conduct research for her senior honors thesis and a paper they planned to publish together. She interviewed leaders from The United Nations, The International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies.
“It was like every night we’d have dinner with one of his old friends or a former student,” she says. “All of these people were doing really important work—some of them at the highest levels—I was starstruck.”
They visited Sean Brooks, from Davidson’s class of 2004, in Nairobi. Brooks first met Menkhaus as a high school senior and has viewed him as a mentor since.
“Over the years, there are things Ken’s advised me to do—or not to do—based on his experiences,” Brooks says. “He’s always encouraged me to make pragmatic decisions, but to be as adventurous as possible.”
Brooks runs the consulting firm Tethered UP, which supports innovators in countries such as Somalia, Sudan and other challenged areas of east Africa. He’s often met people who know Menkhaus.
“I’d hear, Ken and I traveled upriver to do a farmland mapping,’” Brooks says, “Or ‘Ken and I were in Mogadishu when all hell broke loose.’”
As a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, Brooks attended a lecture Menkhaus gave there.
“He talked about the situation in Somalia growing worse, and warned that if something didn’t change, hundreds of thousands of people were going to lose their lives,” Brooks says. “The next year they had a famine and hundreds of thousands of people died.
“He wanted people to listen and understand how bad it was going to be. He’s the gold standard when it comes to research and analysis—he’s respected internationally for that. He has this ability to understand and appreciate the magnitude of problems and come up with a strategy. And he does it from the perspective of someone who really cares.
“When I think about others who might have similar professional talents,” Brooks says, “they’re not nearly as decent or kind or caring as Ken.”
Brooks felt a strong sense of grief when Menkhaus told him about the ALS.
“It was so shocking,” he says. “But Ken has this ‘I’m going to understand and figure this out’ attitude. He uses that incredibly dynamic set of skills and talents to figure out how he can help people.”
Dukes says Menkhaus had warned her before their 2019 trip that he’d “be walking like a wounded elephant,” but didn’t tell her until after her graduation that he had ALS.
“I was so sad, but then I’d follow his blog and see that he was doing what he always does—jumping in and trying to fix the problem,” she says. “I’m not surprised he took that approach to ALS, for as he taught us, it’s about choosing between the best of the worst options.”
Working for Peace
This isn’t Menkhaus’s first confrontation with mortality, though others have been far more violent.
He graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati and spent a year volunteering for a non-profit agency building houses in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. He didn’t get how a region so rich in resources could have such poverty. He decided to explore rural underdevelopment in graduate school.
That led to a doctoral program at the University of South Carolina, and a teaching assistant position at Somali National University. During dissertation field work in 1988, he lived among Somali farmers along the Juba River. Like his neighbors in Appalachia, they had rich farmland but were deeply impoverished and marginalized. He planned to devote his career to rural development, but the 1990 outbreak of civil war in Somalia changed that.
After two years of teaching in Egypt and just before starting at Davidson in 1991, he spent a summer in Somalia working with humanitarian agencies responding to the imminent famine and displacement caused by the civil war and government’s collapse.
“I flew into a war zone, I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. “There were some really hairy moments, we got chased and shot at numerous times, but I got out of it alive. Not all my colleagues did. One aid worker I was with was shot and killed just weeks after I left to teach at Davidson.”
As one of the very few analysts who had worked inside the Somalia war and famine, he started getting invited to U.S. government and UN meetings about possible peacekeeping operations. In 1993, the UN asked him to serve as a special political advisor in the UN peace enforcement mission deployed to end the civil war and famine. Davidson granted him a leave of absence.
“Suddenly I was in the midst of a massive UN peace enforcement operation,” he says. “It was a big change for someone who thought I’d have a quiet academic life. I was flying in helicopters every day, meeting with elders and warlords. We had mortars dropped and shots fired on us. Several of my friends were wounded or killed.”
His convoy was ambushed on the way to a local airport.
“Bullets were hitting our car, the UN peacekeepers in our car shot back, and I ended up with a lap full of cartridges, but we got through it. It was a very violent mission,” he says. “We were working through a peace process with some warlords who were pretty unpleasant characters.”
After the failed UN mission to Somalia ended in 1995, Menkhaus continued to work with international aid agencies on development, peacebuilding and state building projects with Somali counterparts.
He traveled in armored personnel carriers and had to carefully plan meeting safely with Somali colleagues to avoid kidnapping or assassination attempts. In Mogadishu in 2005, Somali colleagues working on a project with him got wind that he might be a target of the jihadi group Al Shabaab.
They quickly whisked him to a dirt runway and onto an empty drug smuggler’s cargo plane that had dropped off its Khat (a narcotic leaf) in Somalia and was heading back to Kenya. He credits his Somali friends for protecting him and likely saving his life on that, and several other occasions.
But again, he doesn’t want those close calls to define his time there. He says he spent most of his time talking to people—over tea, a meal, at a market or on a farm—to learn what they needed to heal their country.
“I have worked with wonderful, committed Somalis who are working so hard to bring back peace and development,” he says somberly. “Too many of them have ended up as refugees or dead.”
The college community’s affection for Menkhaus dates back to his early days on campus.
As a bachelor, he threw lively parties at his Old Concord Road house, and many a Davidson couple began there, including Ramirez and his wife, Annie Porges ’85, senior major gifts officer for College Relations.
Menkhaus met his wife far from Davidson, at a 1992 UN conference on Somalia peace operations. Karin’s father headed an international aid agency in Sweden and ran the conference with her help. (On that same day Menkhaus also met a mid-level diplomat from Ghana, Kofi Annan, who later became secretary general of the United Nations.)
He and Karin had a long-distance relationship for two years before getting married in Sweden. They settled in Davidson and the parties continued, transitioning into more family-friendly events as children came onto the scene.
“I do enjoy throwing parties,” he says. “There’s no substitute for good friends, and bringing people together is such great fun.”
They have three children, Oskar, a senior at the University of Evansville; Kaisa, a sophomore at Furman University; and Erik, a high school sophomore. Growing up, the Menkhaus kids had endless opportunities to learn.
“I cannot remember a time when he didn’t give us lectures,” Kaisa says. “Wherever we went, Dad had a slideshow memorized. Our vacations were educational experiences. He even quizzed us about random facts at the dinner table.”
They enjoyed competing; in backyard cricket games, soccer, and for him, on the tennis court. No bad sportsmanship allowed—a sense of humor remains a family requirement.
“He always wants us to do our best, but he also encourages self-care and positive attitudes,” Kaisa says. “He likes to joke that the Menkhaus blood gives us a competitive nature, but that our mother’s Swedish blood calms it down and keeps us from getting worked up about losing.”
She’s grateful, and proud of his accomplishments.
“There is never a moment where I feel my dad does not have my back,” Kaisa says. “He is the most reliable person I know and his hard work has given so much to our family. I wish I had his rigor and as positive an attitude.”
Ramirez, the R. Stuart Dickson Psychology Professor at Davidson, figures he’s spent thousands of hours talking with Menkhaus during their 30-year friendship.
“He’s one of the most upbeat, charismatic, lovable, smart people you’ll ever meet,” Ramirez says. “He’s someone who can carry on this interesting, incredibly intellectual conversation—and someone you also want to have a beer with.”
Their talks cover current events, faculty news, research, sports, health and families.
“He has great kids and he adores them and Karin,” Ramirez says. “He’s that role model of someone who can juggle the responsibilities of an academic career and be an amazing parent.”
The friends often commiserated about the joys of parenting teenagers.
“We shared a lot of stories about our teenagers, and it would evolve into both of us laughing these big belly laughs,” Ramirez says. “Ken can always make me laugh.”
Paying It Forward
Menkhaus kept an even-keeled approach during terms as vice-chair of the faculty and as the political science department chair.
“He’s an extraordinary leader and his ability to bring people together to work on solutions is remarkable,” Ramirez says. “You figure that he’s been doing that in Somalia war zones for a long time, which should make any conflict with the faculty seem like a piece of cake. He was well trained for the position.”
ALS has required a shift in Menkhaus’s work-life balance. He’s cut back on research, advising and service obligations to manage reduced stamina. He devotes more time to self-care. That includes an occasional round of golf, which he can still play thanks to a foot-ankle brace. He swears his golf game, which he plays with a 23 handicap, has improved despite ALS because his preoccupation with balance has shortened his swing.
In 2019, he shared his diagnosis with a group of friends he’s gone on an annual golf trip with for years, figuring it was the last time he’d be able to join them. He’s still making the trip and hopes that continues for many more years, again feeling gratitude for the disease’s slow progression.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, he played in a member-guest tournament with friend and former Davidson professor Tom Kazee and thought it would be a last.
“But I had a good day, we tied for first and won $150 worth of swag,” he says with a touch of glee. “Can you imagine those other golfers when they realized a guy with ALS beat them?”
In summer of 2018, his family took a trip of a lifetime to Kenya and Ethiopia so the kids could see part of the region where he’d spent so much time. They vacationed at the Grand Canyon and southern Utah over Christmas break in 2019, another “bucket list” trip.
After a sabbatical last year, he’s happy to be back on campus, teaching and meeting with students in person. He hopes to keep teaching until he’s ready to retire, and not because ALS forces him to.
“Obsessing about a breakthrough in my lifetime doesn’t help anything,” he says. “My advocacy comes for the next generation. I can console myself that I’ve had a great life, if my time on this planet is shortened, it’s not nearly as painful as when it happens to someone much younger.
“It may be too late for me; I just hope that someday others won’t have to live with this.”
And that’s why his friend Ramirez compares Menkhaus to the fictional movie hero Indiana Jones.
“He’s still trying to make the world a better place,” Ramirez says. “He’s always had that adventurous spirit and a willingness to confront dangerous situations if it meant contributing to the greater good.”
This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2021 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.