Jean Kennedy has dedicated her life to education

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 4, 2012

SALISBURY — The school kept sending Jean Boyd Kennedy home, and her mother kept sending her back.
Shuford Memorial School had decided 5-year-old Jean was too young for the first grade, but Willie Menia Boyd knew better.
Her little girl already could read, and Willie Menia, a full-time domestic worker, preferred to have Jean in school rather than continue to impose on neighbors.
The school finally relented. Jean remembers being placed in a “B” group in class, but teacher Pauline Martin Morton would not allow herself to be a glorified day care provider.
“She just chose to teach me,” Kennedy says today. “That made an impression.”
Kennedy knew then she wanted to be a teacher. It set her on a path — filled with other important teachers along the way — that easily has touched thousands of children in Rowan County and, through her position on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, still does.
“I was pre-pay-it-forward,” says Kennedy, first elected to the school board in 2006.
Prior to public office, Kennedy forged a 361/2-year teaching career, mostly at North Rowan High School, where she captured Teacher of the Year honors at least four times. In 1990-91, she earned Teacher-of-the-Year recognition for the whole school system.
Kennedy, 67, divides her life into categories such as family, education, church and community service. But it usually all comes back to children.
“She loves children, and she loves to see them do well,” says Gretta Saunders, a longtime friend. “The better they do, the better she likes it. I watch her with the children in the church and how she can just bring out the best in them.”
Active role
On the school board, Kennedy made it a goal from the start to improve student achievement.
Her Board of Education years, she acknowledges, have been “eye-opening” in revealing the broad spectrum of issues a school system deals with.
She has never missed a state or district conference. She attends special-issue seminars and keeps abreast of all changes in the law and programs designed to improve student performance.
This past week, she took a tour of potential central office facilities, visited schools for breakfast or lunch, mentored a student and chaired an Appeals Committee meeting.
A pretty typical week.
School Board Chairman Jim Emerson says he and Kennedy, the vice chairman, don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, but he respects her knowledge and strong advocacy for kids.
Kennedy fully participates and makes herself accessible, Emerson says.
“Jean is an exceptional person,” he adds. “She’s got the grit and wisdom (and) doesn’t ignore tough issues. She faces them head on and is not afraid to voice her opinion.”
Mutual respect
Kennedy’s demeanor and approach on the school board fit with her legacy as a teacher.
She was known for running her classroom on a promise of mutual respect. If she had any rule, it was that everybody was important, and all would be heard.
While she valued students’ opinions and allowed them to question or challenge her, they also knew they had better have sound arguments to support their arguments.
The motto in her classroom was, “I can make a difference,” and she meant for it to apply to students and her.
Kennedy took the example of her first-grade teacher to heart. She believed she could teach any child.
Joy Kennedy, her youngest daughter, found herself in her mother’s English honors class as a sophomore at North Rowan High.
Joy chose to address her as “Mrs. Kennedy” in class. Jean called her daughter “Miss Kennedy,” because she used a courtesy title for all of her students.
“Overall, it was a pleasant experience,” Joy says, looking back. “I learned a lot in her class.”
Joy Kennedy says her mother was the disciplinarian at home. At times, she thought her mother’s edicts were too tough, but “now that I’ve grown up and things I’ve gone through — I can understand where she’s coming from.”
The most important lessons, Joy says, came down to how to treat other people and never thinking you were better than anyone else.
Joy says she also learned things about being a lady and speaking her mind.
The important thing to know about Jean Kennedy was that she chose teaching as a profession. She didn’t back into it. To her, teaching embraced everything else.
The men and women who become doctors, lawyers, scientists and architects — it all starts somewhere with a teacher, she says.
As an educator, Kennedy has never forgotten that.
Growing up
Willie Menia Boyd was a twin, but her mother died in childbirth and her twin sibling perished a few days later.
It left Jean Kennedy’s grandfather to raise a family on his own. He eventually moved that family from South Carolina to Granite Quarry. He first worked at Spencer Shops, then the quarries.
Later, Willie Menia would raise her own children (Jean has an older brother) as a single mother, but Jean’s grandfather, Robert Boyd, proved to be an important male role model for the children.
While they may have been poor, Jean Kennedy says, they never considered themselves as such. Their day-to-day lives revolved around work, their own vegetable gardens, canning, hog-killings, raising chickens, hunting, attending White Rock Church AME Zion Church and depending on neighbors.
No one locked their doors. “I thought it was a very safe environment,” Kennedy recalls.
Her mother had only a sixth-grade education, but she always found ways to support the family. Willie Menia worked for some of the top families in Granite Quarry, then became a custodian for F&M banks, as the company branched into the county. An excellent cook, she also was a school cafeteria worker.
Jean’s mother was strict. “I would receive only one ‘no,’ ” Kennedy says. Willie Menia Boyd also was an encourager and proud of her daughter, who went through school as a top student.
In the days before integration, Kennedy attended Shuford Memorial on Dunn’s Mountain Road through the eighth grade.
Kennedy remembers wondering why her school’s textbooks, which were secondhand, had the names of other children written into them.
She eventually attended East Spencer’s Dunbar High School, where she was a cheerleader and student council representative before graduating.
Kennedy was an A student throughout high school, except for two C’s in typing.
Starting a family
She met Royal Kennedy at Dunbar, and the young couple married in 1963. They celebrated their 48th anniversary last year and have three grown daughters — Jennifer, Sharon and Joy.
Royal Kennedy, who was a year ahead of Jean in school, eventually enlisted in the U.S. Marines, while his new wife enrolled at Livingstone College.
Jean Kennedy says she was only able to attend college — the first person in her family — because of a scholarship set aside for aspiring teachers and money she received for her high SAT score.
She had to spend her freshman year on campus. During the rest of her days at Livingstone, she commuted to the college, catching a bus back and forth from Granite Quarry.
At Livingstone, she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest sorority for women of color. She is now a lifetime member and says she joined because of the group’s high record of community service and academic achievement.
Royal’s service in the Marine Corps took him as far away as Okinawa, Japan. Jean Kennedy looked for a bright side to their long periods apart, especially since they already had started a family back home.
“A continuous honeymoon,” she says. “That’s the way I saw it.”
Her mother and great aunt helped tremendously with the young children at home while she attended college. Jean Kennedy studied English at Livingstone and graduated with honors.
After the Marines, Royal followed in the footsteps of his father and an older brother and worked for Southern Railway.
Getting her start
Jesse Carson hired Kennedy and assigned her to teach at Dunbar High School in 1967, as the school system inched closer and closer to full integration.
Students were given a choice of whether they wanted to attend Dunbar High or North Rowan High, and by the fall of 1968, Dunbar had lost enough students for there to be an opening for a teacher at North.
Kennedy didn’t hesitate to take the job, though she would be the first black woman teacher at the school and one of only three African-American teachers in all.
She faced a loaded schedule — three English and two social studies classes.
“I went in with a smile,” she says. “The students accepted me before the staff did.”
More turbulent years — the early days of total integration — would follow after Dunbar High closed in 1969. She wrote on her blackboard: “We will operate this classroom on respect.”
Over 32 years at North Rowan High, Kennedy taught English, math and critical thinking — the latter meant to help students improve their SAT scores.
She chaired the English department, coached cheerleaders and advised the Future Teachers of America Club.
Kennedy is especially proud of serving on the state Professional Practices Commission, which met five times a year in Raleigh and developed the code of ethics for teachers still in effect today.
Before retiring in 2004, Kennedy finished out her teaching career with stints at North Rowan Middle, back at North High and Knox Middle.
On the board
Her brother-in-law, Salisbury City Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy, encouraged her to run for the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.
It did not take any arm-twisting.
“I went (to file) that day,” she says.
Pete Kennedy says he encouraged Jean to run because of her expertise and experience. He describes her as a people person, who like her late mother, has always been an encourager for her family, church, sorority and the students she taught.
“We call her the professor in our family,” Pete Kennedy says. “Any time there’s a need to write anything, we make sure to run it by Jean first.”
Jean Kennedy says she leaves much of the cooking to Royal. Her secret television vices are shows such as “Law and Order” and “The Closer” and reruns of “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote.”
She likes John Grisham novels.
Because her oldest daughter, Jennifer, works out of town, Jean Kennedy spends a lot of time with her 11-year-old grandson, making sure he places as much emphasis on his schoolwork as he does on sports.
Her church and community work is important to Kennedy: She volunteers at the Rowan Helping Ministries shelter once a month, mentors students weekly through the Communities in School program and is active in Church Women United and the Dunbar Alumni Association.
She has filled many roles at Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church in East Spencer.
Kennedy thinks she has left her mark.
Her biggest thrill comes when former students approach her and express appreciation for having been in her classes.
Kennedy wants today’s students to get as much education as they can and take advantage of all the resources available to them.
“Our children have so much at their disposal,” she says.
Joy Kennedy, Jean’s youngest daughter, has gone into education herself. She is a speech pathologist in the Cabarrus County school system and working on her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, awaiting approval of her dissertation proposal.
The daughter realizes her inspiration to become an educator came from the example her mother set. She has seen all those former students showing their gratitude to Jean Kennedy.
She also knows what her mother’s focus is on the school board.
“All the children she represents — she considers them to be her own,” Joy says. “That’s who she is there for.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@