- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Austinite Kevin Tuerff will be watching the Tony Awards ceremony very closely on June 11: He is a character in “Come From Away.”
That’s right. He is portrayed as Kevin T in the hit musical about Gander, a Canadian town that showed great kindness to thousands of airline passengers — including Tuerff — stranded there on 9/11.
The show has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, including best musical.
“Having a doppelganger on Broadway is crazy and surreal,” says Tuerff, who has retired from EnviroMedia, a green-themed Austin marketing company that he co-founded. “I never thought that my experience being one of 7,000 stranded passengers in Gander would end up on the Broadway stage, or that I would walk out on that stage to receive a standing ovation during a Broadway opening.”
Tuerff has written a sweet, elegant book, “Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11,” that chronicles not only his days and nights on Newfoundland — he and his then-partner were diverted there en route home from a vacation in Paris — but also his subsequent Pay It Forward 9/11 initiative, which encourages random acts of kindness, and the spectacle of watching “Come From Away” evolve from a show at Sheridan College in Toronto to acclaim with a professional cast in Seattle, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Toronto and now New York. There have been two benefit performances for the residents of remote Gander, population 12,000, whose refueling airport could handle the big planes.
“I thought it was over after the Toronto college production,” Tuerff says of the musical’s progress. “But it kept going and going because of sellout crowds.”
Chad Kimball, who was nominated for a 2010 Tony for his performance in the musical “Memphis” — he is not nominated this year — plays Kevin T and other roles.
“Chad is the younger, sexier version of me,” Tuerff jokes. “He’s straight and he’s conservative. I didn’t know that at first, but I like him anyway. Like the show and in real life, I believe in celebrating humanity, despite our differences.”
Audiences can’t get enough of stories about Gander residents who spent several days doing everything they could to house, feed and comfort the passengers. And readers are fascinated by Tuerff’s later kindness initiative, which he started with his EnviroMedia staff in 2002 and each Sept. 11 thereafter by giving multiple teams of employees $100 each and time off to help any random stranger, school, church or nonprofit.
“I wrote most of the book at a picnic table on a fishing pier in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and at an eight-day silent retreat in Wernersville, Pa.,” Tuerff says. “Having the March 12 Broadway opening was a great deadline to finish it.”
Available online, at bookstores and at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, it is the only first-person account of the Gander experience in book form. A reported account, “The Day the World Came to Town,” by journalist Jim DeFede, has been selling well for 16 years.
Tuerff took his mother and father to see the staging of the show at the Toronto production in January.
“Standing in line to get into the theater in the freezing cold, we struck up a conversation with a friendly Canadian man,” he says. “I was blown away that people had driven four hours to see the show. He exploded with excitement and insisted on having a photo taken with me and my father.”
Last year, he founded Kevin Tuerff Consulting LLC, and his first gigs were publishing the book and speaking to crowds about his stories. His new company will help clients with a new type of very targeted marketing and public relations based on a spiritual calling he experienced last fall.
“On a plane leaving D.C. after seeing the show again at Ford’s Theatre, I had a strange sensation, like I was drunk, except I was sober,” he recalls. “So I opened my laptop and started journaling and listening to music. I played a song from the musical where Chad Kimball sings ‘Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,’ which was a popular part of my growing up Catholic.”
To amplify the coincidence, a version of the hymn had gone through Tuerff’s head during the week after 9/11, and even before then he had performed another version while a member of the Austin Singers.
“I began journaling,” he says. “And without thinking about it, I typed, ‘I am embracing my role as a channel of peace.’”
A few days later, Tuerff called a friend who is a Catholic priest.
“What do you make of all this?” he asked. “He said, ‘I think God’s trying to talk to you.’ He suggested the silent retreat. While I was at the Jesuit retreat center, I had another surreal encounter. While on the table during a relaxation massage from a local therapist, I saw a vision with letters appearing on a chalk board one at a time. It spelled out I-M-M-I-G-R-A-N-T. What was that?”
For 30 years, he had focused on environmental problems. Immigration wasn’t on his radar.
“My spiritual director told me to pray about it and figure it out,” he recalls. “At the end of the week, I asked in my prayers, ‘Do I continue working solely on the environment, or switch over to working on kindness, immigrants and refugees?’ In my subconscious, I quickly heard a voice saying, ‘Of course you should switch.’”
Turns out, his interests and expertise cross over in a new advocacy for climate refugees.
After the retreat, he flew back to Gander with the cast and crew of “Come From Away” for two benefit shows staged in the town’s hockey rink. The locals started a five-minute standing ovation before it ended.
Then Tuerff had another moment of serendipity. His friend Mac Moss, who had led the 9/11 shelter at Gander’s College of the North Atlantic campus, picked him up for dinner.
“He asked if he could run an errand first,” Tuerff remembers. “I said, ‘Sure, where are we going?’ He said his church was volunteering to help Syrian refugees brought to Gander. Within minutes, I was talking with a Syrian family in their new living room of a house donated by locals. I told them via the Google Translate app that they were in good hands with the people of Gander.”
That helped open his eyes to the wider global refugee crisis.
“On 9/11, we weren’t seeking asylum in Canada, but a war had broken out, we had no food, no clothing, no shelter and no information,” he says. “That moment with the Syrians, I decided to write this book and dedicate 25 percent of the net proceeds to Gander Refugee Outreach. Hatred and intolerance toward refugees is at an all-time high. Just when the world has a record 60 million refugees.”
Days after the Broadway opening, Tuerff was invited to see the show with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, presidential daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and 120 United Nations ambassadors during a night that toasted Canada’s 150th birthday. He shook hands with Trump before the show and afterward presented his book to Trudeau onstage, thanking him for setting the bar high for others on how to kindly treat refugees.
Tuerff: “I believe that stories of kindness toward strangers can jump-start the heart of a divided nation.”