Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, Wally-Dad!

Today is the birthday of my beloved father, Wallace Kennedy, pictured here in two treasured photos from the past year: in the chair (by Joyce Kennedy), and with binoculars (by Cheryl Walsh Bellville).

My dad has always had scary-accurate recall, a great memory for names, dates and anecdotes that served him well as an educator, in a profession where he met hundreds (if not thousands) of people. He respected and admired his students, realizing that each of them was a complete person who would go on beyond the classroom in unexpected ways. I never heard him take a condescending attitude towards students; instead, he enjoys talking about the things he learned from them, or about their responses to a learning experience.

With his friend and fellow educator, Sy Yesner, Dad came up with the brilliant idea of the Urban Arts program, forging links between professional artists and the Minneapolis Schools. Unfortunately, the program later lost its funding in Minneapolis, after replication in many other cities. For a time Dad had the wildest job title: he was disseminator of arts education for the National Diffusion Network. I think that is something Obama would be wise to bring back. Wally is writing now about Urban Arts, thinking there are contemporary lessons to be gained from its history – if you have memories of involvement with the program, please contact me and I'll put you in touch with him.

A few years ago Wally wrote a memoir of his early years, called Who Do You Think You Are? What I love about this book is that it gives such a vivid glimpse of him as a child and young man, growing up during the Great Depression (–I must say, I always get a bizarre kick out of capitalizing those words), from a boyhood base in Cando, North Dakota. It's valuable beyond words to have a record of his memories captured in narrative form, along with some great early photos that I would post here, if I had them (maybe I can remedy that later). There's a quote at the beginning of the book by John Lukacs: "What happens is not separable from what people think happens."

I asked Dad for some words about the writing process, and he had this to say:

Writing my boyhood memoir was easier than I expected. Once I began recalling the earliest memories, such as my third birthday, the sights and sounds of daily life just flooded in. The "hard work" was cutting out memories that seemed unkind to anyone, but keeping the truth about experiences that shaped my growing years. Instead of writing to please a reader, I worked to avoid offending a reader. Hope that makes some sense.

Dad directed theater, taught speech, debate, literature, writing, poetry: he has a capacious interest in all subjects, and helped create the first humanities curriculum for high school in the United States. It's thanks to my dad (and mother and siblings) that there is such a wide range of topics in this blog: it was impossible to grow up with my parents and not find the world to be filled with potential and fascination. With my mom, he is one half of an entity we call "Joywal."

Even today, I envy my father's cultural life: he takes the time to attend countless theater, dance, music and writing events, and then to think about them in relation to other topics. I believe this helps explain his remarkable health and mental alertness. Oh, (and here is where we differ) – he loves to watch sports, too, even those often-exasperating Vikings and Gophers games! He is what we call (in Papua New Guinea-speak) "the bush tucker man": the one in the family who patiently hunts and gathers the groceries. He's a great cook, and makes Wally's Wonderful Waffles (which preceded the World Wide Web). He gardened for years, planting trees for all his grandchildren, and is a handyman, drawing on the skills of his own father, Noah Kennedy, who was that rare and remarkable thing, a Jack-of-all-trades. His mother, Hadie, was a nurse, gardener and midwife.

Much love, admiration, and gratitude to you today, Dad, on your birthday!


Nor said...

Sweet birthday greetings... I always remember Wally promises that there WILL be flowers in Minnesota on this day.

DG said...

And happy birthday from your friends Mike, Deb, and Liam in Washington, where there are definitely flowers and fallen cherry blossoms in huge drifts like Minnesota snow.

Lyle Daggett said...

Coming by just a little late -- Happy Birthday to Wally!

My recollections of Wally as a teacher are entirely as you describe here. The Urban Arts Poetry and Songwriting class moved and shaped me as a poet and as a human being in ways I'm still discovering, even now after all these years.

Wally, if you happen to read this, I've been reading Who Do You Think You Are?, taking my time with it, amidst several dozen other things -- I will, as I promised, send you further about the book after I've had some more time with it.

Joyce, likewise with Ghost Lamp. Please both know I haven't forgotten about you.

Ellen, I'm interested that you mention Sy Yesner. The same summer (1970) that I was in the poetry writing class taught by John Caddy (that I wrote about recently in my blog), I was also (as part of the same summer program) in a Humanities class taught by Sy Yesner.

My recollections of that class aren't as vivid as those of the poetry class -- I mostly remember a lot of discussions in class about a wide spectrum of topics about arts and culture, the kind of thing Humanities classes talk about. The class did lead me to some interesting reading, and I remember one session when we watched an animated film someone had made of Lenny Bruce's comedy routine "An Interview with Shorty Petterstein," Bruce's inimitable take on a square music critic attempting to interview a jazz musician.

Thanks for posting this.