Activist Kathy Chang, who set herself afire 20 years ago, remembered at Penn

Friends gather by Penn's Van Pelt Library to remember Kathy Chang, who burned herself to death there. on October 22,1996.

The people who remember Kathy Chang stood where she stood, in a grove of Chinese elms by a stainless steel peace symbol, rekindling the message she burned into memory 20 years ago.

On Oct. 22, 1996, around 11:20 a.m., Chang walked to this quiet space on the west side of the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library, doused herself in gasoline, and died in flames.

Chang was a fixture at Penn for 15 years and had called herself "Kathy Change." She wanted to transform the world and made it known through art and dancing, public performance and her final act, a suicide by any defining, is looked at as something more by some.

"She wouldn't have used the word suicide," Chang's friend Anita King said Saturday. "Her death had meaning."

Chang, before taking her life, delivered packets of protest literature to eight selected students. The woman who often dressed as a butterfly said she wanted transformation.

"I want to make a statement about life and death," read the note Philadelphia police found at the scene.

Chang was a survivor of suicide loss. When she was 14, she found her mother dead, a suicide by overdose of barbiturates. News accounts at the time of Chang's death mentioned her own suicide attempts and struggles with mental illness.

King said that's not Chang's story, though.

"There's a lot of people walking around with wounds in this world," King, 58, said.

King was accompanied Saturday by musicians, activists, artists, and anarchists at the peace symbol, about a dozen in all. Two men placed a banner across the top of the symbol and a photo of Chang beneath it. One woman danced barefoot - her feet muddy in the blustery, wet cold - with fans in her hands, stopping sometimes to hug a tree.

Jamie Graham, 46, of West Philadelphia, recalled Chang's marijuana activism, a good decade before it became mainstream. High Times magazine named her the "Freedom Fighter of the Month" in 1990 after she was arrested in Philadelphia, dressed as a butterfly, thanking God for creating "mushrooms, peyote, and pot."

"She had a vision for a different world," Graham said.

Speakers noted that Chang's method of suicide, self-immolation, remains a symbol of resistance. They mentioned Thích Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death on a Saigon street in 1963 to protest the South Vietnamese government.

Norman Morrison, a Quaker, is hailed as a hero in Vietnam for his immolation death at the Pentagon in 1965.

Poet Andres Castro read from pieces he wrote about Chang, one when she died and one he wrote just last week. Castro mentioned the 40,000-plus who take their lives each year in the United States in other ways.

In April, Ao "Olivia" Kong, 21, a junior at the Wharton School of Business, took her own life and became the 10th suicide of a Penn student in three years.

Castro weighed what he'd read about Chang and suicide against the certainty she felt about transforming the world.

"No matter who I talk to, she will remain a mystery," Castro said, wiping tears from his face.

Robert Helms, a historian of Philadelphia's anarchist movement, said it's too easy to write off Chang as a "crazy person."

"You can forget about the general public understanding Kathy Change," he said.

Few of the people passing by on Penn's Locust Walk stopped to watch the small memorial. A few looked out the windows of the library and returned to their seats.

One man who had forgotten Chang remembered when he saw the banner and stopped to take a photo.

"I was working here at the time and she was definitely a figure on the campus," said Scott Reynolds, 50, of Bala Cynwyd. "She was just a figure."

narkj@phillynews.com

215-854-5916

@jasonnark