April 22, 2020

Saying goodbye to a friend and champion of intellectual exploration

Donald Kennedy

A statement by Michael A. Keller, vice provost and university librarian, on the passing of Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy

With a genuine smile, an understanding gaze, and a friendly handshake given to all who came in contact with him, Donald Kennedy knew how to make everyone feel at ease in his company. From running the Dish with undergraduates to welcoming the Queen of England and former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Don gave each his attention, engaging with all equally. How sorely he will be missed.

Don loved Stanford. He was inspired daily by his engagements with students, faculty and staff. He guided and led this university through a great transformation to the strong institution that it is today. The university’s commemoration of his life is a good recitation of his contributions, and what I hope to offer here is my observations of the person for whom I had profound respect for championing intellectual exploration and compassionate leadership.

Although he was a man of science, with a distinguished career as a biologist, educator and administrator, his commitment to the Humanities and the research pursuits that took place in our libraries was equally as strong. In the first hours of his presidency, he boldly announced the establishment of the Humanities Center in his inaugural address. Don frequently praised his predecessor, former Stanford President Richard Lyman, for investing in the expansion of library collections for humanists during the 1970s, noting the foundation this provided him to build upon.

His words were not empty; he believed in them deeply. Understanding the impact a strong library collection can have on research, he and his wife Robin opened a library endowment for the acquisition of materials in Jewish Studies, a subject that was dear to them and a campus community of which they were active members.

Don’s passion for nature and the outdoors was known by all. As an active birder, it was not uncommon for him to be seen clutching a pair of binoculars. He was keenly aware of all the nooks on campus that proved to be good sanctuaries for birds, and proudly shared these discoveries with all who would listen. In an effort to get more people tracking the skies and trees, he helped start The Birds of Stanford, a resource that provides campus maps, habitat descriptions and bird checklists for each destination. The website helped birth an idea to add a gallery wall inside Green Library of a few of the birds included in Don’s list by artist Darryl Wheye, a collaborator of Don’s in this endeavor.

Stanford President Emeritus Donald KennedyIn 2017, we worked with Don’s wife Robin to host an unveiling of the gallery wall. Don surprised us all by attending himself. Don spoke, and as he did all in attendance clung to every word, just as his students did when he taught. While he wasn’t jumping on table tops or actively using a blackboard to convey his points, his simple words, and more so his gentle demeanor are what all of us truly adored of Don. He spoke very briefly, not to distract from the birds, beautifully displayed behind him. His words were some of the last many of us heard from him publicly.

Today, as we face various challenges and what may seem like insurmountable uncertainty, I find myself thinking of our dear friend Don. He navigated through some of the strongest storms this university has faced, and he did so with grace and strength. Once our shelter in place is lifted, I may find myself recalling the archive of Donald Kennedy from University Archives to draw inspiration.

It is only fitting to end this statement with familiar words uttered by Don every year as spring turned into summer, and our graduates entered the world as Stanford alumni:

  “Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs…. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.” --Adlai Stevenson

Rest easy, Donald Kennedy, and thank you for all you gave, especially to Stanford.



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