Low Profile Leader Over two decades, Pete Kennedy earns respect for level approach
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles for Black History Month. The Post is focusing on people in our community who are making history now.
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Pete Kennedy was fed up. Out the front window of his realty office on East Fisher Street, he could watch the comings and goings of a crack house.
The police chief told him — maybe jokingly, maybe not — it might be wiser to move his office somewhere else than try to get rid of the drug activity.
Boiling inside, Kennedy decided he needed to do something himself — perhaps in the political arena. Twenty years and 10 elections later, Kennedy is close to becoming the longest serving member ever of Salisbury City Council.
For almost all of that time, Kennedy has been the only African-American on the five-member body.
Back in 1993, Kennedy sought the counsel of A.R. Kelsey and Charles Holloway, prominent members of the black community who had run for local offices before, although unsuccessfully.
He also went to the library and checked out books on how to campaign. State Alexander, an executive with Livingstone College, gave him ideas to try, and Kennedy waged a modest, first-time effort, spending the couple thousand of dollars he had raised.
But on Election Night, rather than waiting in town for returns, Kennedy decided to use his season tickets to attend a Charlotte Hornets basketball game.
The next morning he picked up a Charlotte Observer, which showed in the early edition reaching Salisbury that he was trailing. Kennedy put the newspaper down, assumed he had lost and went about his morning’s business away from telephones.
It wasn’t until he read the Salisbury Post’s afternoon edition that Kennedy learned he had secured a position on the council by coming in fifth. When the Observer had gone to press, the largely African-American West Ward III precinct’s votes had yet to be counted.
After Kennedy’s election, the police chief became more proactive in getting rid of the crack house across the street. When photographs ran in the newspaper with drug suspects handcuffed and lying on the ground after a police raid on the house, some members of the black community complained about police brutality.
But Kennedy defended Police Chief Jeff Jacobs, “because he had done what we asked to clean it up.”
The irony: Jacobs would leave his position later under pressure from the same West End community which helped to elect Kennedy.
Before the chief’s resignation, however, Kennedy came to appreciate Jacobs’ efforts to transform the Police Department into a community/district policing setup, based on strong neighborhood concepts.
Somehow over 20 years, William R. “Pete” Kennedy has kept a low profile, and the people who have been in public service with him say it’s just the nature of the man.
“I think he’s only on City Council to serve,” recently retired City Manager David Treme says. “He doesn’t seek the limelight. He was never one to seek headlines.
“… He thought all areas of the town and individuals should be treated the same, no matter where they lived.”
Bill Burgin, who served 12 years on the council with Kennedy, says his colleague was always level-headed, informed and wary of taking a position that was either hard right or hard left.
“I think that’s been his reason for success, quite frankly,” Burgin says. “Answers aren’t on the edges. They are somewhere in the middle.”
As a councilman, Kennedy has played key roles in neighborhood revitalization efforts, community policing, creation of a city-owned cable utility, redevelopment of the former Towne Mall and the naming of a Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
Targeting four individual neighborhoods for attention was especially important to Kennedy.
“To me,” he says, “the city’s only as strong as its weakest community, and the council bought into that.”
In the city-government arena, Kennedy has seldom presented himself as spokesman for the black community. “As long as it happens, I don’t care who gets the credit for it,” he says.
But his subtle efforts for minorities have dramatically improved government diversity.
Kennedy immediately recognized how much of the city’s work was done by boards and commissions reporting to City Council, and he worked behind the scenes in nominating minority members to those bodies at every turn.
Meanwhile, his leadership roles outside the council chamber have focused on human relations — through interracial luncheons, fraternities, community centers, minority business groups, minority credit unions, churches, the NAACP, Livingstone College, Rufty-Holmes Senior Center and the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency.
Most people who follow the non-partisan City Council don’t realize Kennedy, 72, was for many years a registered Republican.
He remembers changing his party affiliation back in early 1970s when he was teaching.
For several years Democratic governors had not delivered on teacher raises. When Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser took office, teachers finally received a salary increase.
Kennedy also identified with the conservative fiscal policy of the GOP.
Friends, family and colleagues know how conservative and business-minded Kennedy is.
“We sort of bonded with that,” says Mayor Paul Woodson, a business owner and Republican himself. “We believe in people working, job growth and helping people in need. We were raised by the same kind of parents who told us to work hard and raise your family.”
Treme laughs recalling the start of city budget sessions every year. Kennedy usually kicked things off by stating succinctly how he would not support any tax increase or hikes in fees.
“I have never wanted to raise taxes on anybody,” says Kennedy, who owns several rental properties in Salisbury and East Spencer.
When he has voted for tax increases, he says, it has been when citizens wanted more police officers, or when an increase was necessary to keep the city fiscally strong.
“Sometimes, I just suck up and do it,” Kennedy says, with a hint of protest.
Kennedy has lived two professional careers, besides his public service one.
For 28 years, he served as a school teacher, coach and guidance counselor — much of that time at East Rowan High School.
Toward the end of his school career, he also started dabbling in real estate, working first for Robeson Realty, then founding William R. Kennedy Realty Inc. in 1985.
As a property manager, landlord and Realtor, Kennedy has assisted what he believes are hundreds of people in becoming homeowners, many for the first time.
He has allowed tenants to use their rental payments toward buying a property, and he has helped some homeless residents at the Salisbury shelter find affordable rental units.
But there also have been many times, Kennedy acknowledges, when he has had to evict tenants for non-payment. It’s something he never gets used to, he says.
Jean Kennedy, a member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, says her brother-in-law Pete is more like a brother.
She only decided to seek a seat on the school board because of Pete Kennedy’s encouragement.
“He lives a life of service to other people,” Jean Kennedy adds. “When he makes a commitment, he’s going to follow through. You can sense his sincerity. He really wants to help people.”
Pete Kennedy’s father worked at the Southern Railroad transfer shed in Spencer, and his mother was a homemaker.
The couple had three sons and a daughter, and “Pete” was the third child in line.
The nickname “Pete” stuck with him from the time he was a boy. The family already had so many Bills, Willies and Williams that a cousin announced Kennedy should go by “Pete” — and it stuck.
He grew up in East Spencer, attending segregated Dunbar School for grades 1 through 12. He lived close enough to go home for lunch.
Overall, Kennedy says, he stayed out of trouble.
“I wanted to be good because I was afraid of the consequences,” he says.
His entrepreneurial spirit surfaced early. He ordered flower and garden seeds wholesale and sold them door-to-door in East Spencer. He also delivered “The Afro” newspaper, published in Baltimore, and learned right away the difficulties of collecting his subscription money.
It was a balancing act of diplomacy — something serving him well later as a property manager in negotiations between landlords and tenants.
Kennedy met his wife, the former Hazel Stout, at the Dunbar School. The couple attended Livingstone College together, graduating in 1962.
They married in 1964 and raised three children: Jacqueline, employed by US Bank in New York and a partner in Break-A-Leg Talent Production; William Ray Jr., a senior associate at Gensler Architecture in Chicago; and Walillian, manager of the Salisbury branch of First Legacy Community Credit Union.
They also have three grandchildren.
Pete Kennedy majored in business education at Livingstone and later earned his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
His first job out of school was with N.C. Mutual Insurance, but his life’s direction changed when he accompanied Hazel on her interview in Chesterfield, S.C., for an elementary school teaching post.
Schools were still segregated. A high school principal who happened to be at the superintendent’s office asked Kennedy whether he might be interested in teaching business.
For the next five years, he taught at Gary High School and coached the basketball team, though at first they had to practice on clay courts outside because they had no available gymnasium.
In that part of the South, students went to school in July and August before taking a break for the cotton harvest. They didn’t return to school again until late October, Kennedy recalls.
Pete and Hazel married during their years in South Carolina and started a family.
They returned to Rowan County when Pete was hired as a teacher at Dunbar High. After two years, integration came in 1969, and most of Kennedy’s black colleagues were assigned teaching positions at the more racially diverse North Rowan High School.
But he was sent to East Rowan High, where the black student population was about 10 percent. He would stay at East Rowan until 1990 and serve as guidance counselor for more than 20 years.
He likes to think he had a career influence on thousands of students, especially those who went on to occupations such as doctors, nurses, attorneys and teachers.
“I fell in love with counseling,” he says.
His master’s degree was in counseling. He also earned a principal’s certificate, interviewed for one principal’s job but was not chosen.
Kennedy could never shed the urge to go into business.
He took a real estate course at Davidson Community College toward earning a license. He also would attend the Graduate Realtors Institute.
When he began working for Robeson Realty as a property manager and started bringing home extra money, both he and Hazel realized he might have a future in real estate.
He opened Kennedy Realty in 1985 and moved in 1989 to his present location, a renovated two-story house on East Fisher Street.
In his election bids every two years for council, Kennedy has employed a winning formula that basically says, spend as much as you raise.
But at times, it has been close. Out of 10 elections, he has come in fifth five times. But he also has been second, third and fourth.
Kennedy survived one election by 5 votes; another by 15 to 20 votes, he says.
Treme, the former city manager, says he found it best to visit Kennedy’s office and talk city business with him from across his desk.
Treme says Kennedy always seemed to have good insights into what citizens were thinking and anticipated correctly how they would react to various council initiatives.
“Other council members sought him out for his perspective,” Woodson agrees. “I benefited from his wisdom.”
Kennedy recalls his first term as a councilman and going into a particular public hearing with his mind already made up.
It was a mistake, he says, and he learned to put off any decisions until he heard people out.
Kennedy says it’s how he has avoided controversy and headlines. He simply went with what the majority of people have wanted.
Woodson, the mayor, calls him “Steady-Eddie Pete.”
“He doesn’t have big swings one way or the other,” Woodson says.
Burgin says Kennedy always takes in all the facts before jumping to a conclusion.
“And he would piece together a pretty good answer to what we had in front of us,” Burgin adds.
With each election cycle over the past 20 years, there always has been something the council is working on that Kennedy wants to see through.
He has been, for example, a strong supporter of the city’s fiber-to-the-home utility. He saw it as a job creator and economic development tool and was on the technology committee that brought the proposal to the full council.
“Now we have the fastest internet in the state,” Kennedy says.
Pete and Hazel Kennedy built their Sedgefield Acres home in 1969 and have lived there since.
Pete attends the Sunday School class Hazel teaches at Southern City AME Zion Church, where he is chairman of the board of trustees.
The couple travel extensively, including Pete’s trips as a delegate to the National League of Cities, the Small Congress of Cities and the N.C. League of Municipalities.
In 2002, the Kennedys also accompanied a city contingent to Salisbury, England.
His service on the National League’s Information and Technology Committee gave him important background information on cities with similar broadband utilities.
Kennedy credits Hazel for being supportive in everything he takes on, but he adds, “I’m very easy to get along with.”
Jean Kennedy, his sister-in-law, agrees.
“Pete is calm,” she says. “I have seen him angry only a few times in the more than 50 years I have known him.”
Jean Kennedy paraphrases Proverbs 31 when she tries to describe her brother-in-law.
“Strength and honor are his clothing; and he shall rejoice in times to come. He openeth his mouth with wisdom, and in his tongue is the law of kindness.
“He looketh well to the ways of his household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.”
Pete Kennedy says it his own way:
“I’m a servant to other people.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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