Obituary: The significant legacy of Robert E. Kennedy

Warren Baker Cal Poly president and , and former president Robert E. Kennedy at a winter Cal Poly commencement ceremony. 12-15-1986 ©Telegram-Tribune
Warren Baker Cal Poly president and , and former president Robert E. Kennedy at a winter Cal Poly commencement ceremony. 12-15-1986 ©Telegram-Tribune

Under Dr. Robert E. Kennedy’s leadership, Cal Poly grew in more ways than one — its 8,000 students increased to more than 16,000 in a little more than a decade, and the campus doubled in size to more than 6,000 acres.

Kennedy, who started at Cal Poly as a journalism instructor in 1940 and was named the university’s seventh permanent president in 1967 — a position he held until his retirement in 1979 — died Christmas Day at his home, surrounded by family.

He was 95.

A memorial service will be held Jan. 15 at the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church.

“Dr. Kennedy led the campus through a key period of its transformation,” Interim President Robert Glidden said in a statement Monday. “Dr. Kennedy’s interest in the campus did not end upon his retirement. He has served the university well in a variety of ways for 70 years. He will be missed, but the mark he made on Cal Poly is significant and lasting.”

Born in Portland, Ore., Kennedy was raised in San Diego and graduated from Herbert Hoover High and later San Diego State College with a degree in English. He called San Luis Obispo home for most of his life.

Known for his love of language, Kennedy worked at a Southern California newspaper before beginning his career at Cal Poly.

He joined the university’s ranks at a seminal moment in the school’s history. The college, which held the academic ranking of a vocational and technical high school just a year before his arrival, was now a degree-granting college.

When Kennedy arrived at the school at the age of 25, Cal Poly had an enrollment of some 700 students taught by about 40 faculty members — a group small enough to fit into a classroom. But the school was about to embark on an amazing growth spurt that would result in a student population today of more than 19,000 and nearly 1,050 faculty members.

Even though Kennedy’s background was in journalism, “he took good care of the polytechnic message” that has defined and set apart the university, said Joe Sabol, a retired agriculture education professor whom Kennedy hired in 1972.

Kennedy’s almost four-decade tenure at Cal Poly was highlighted with a trajectory that saw him teaching journalism and public relations (serving as the college’s public relations officer at one time), serving as dean of Arts and Sciences, assisting the president, serving as vice president in charge of both the San Luis Obispo and Pomona campuses, and serving as president.

Sabol said as a young faculty member and former journalist, Kennedy studied and learned from then-president Julian A. McPhee, who served from 1933 until 1966.

“Kennedy didn’t have the power in Sacramento that McPhee had,” Sabol said. “I think Kennedy had watched and studied that and knew that he had to grow into his own lobbyist as well.”

A witness to change

During those years, Kennedy took two sabbaticals to earn his masters in journalism at Stanford and a doctorate in educational administration at Claremont Graduate School, making his transformation from journalist to educator complete.

Because Cal Poly was a Naval Fleet Prep School (of which Kennedy was an instructor), the campus was populated with young men learning to fly in World War II; their families lived on campus in Quonset huts.

Kennedy would later see the campus makeup change again after the war, becoming a mini-United Nations when students from around the world enrolled in its engineering, refrigeration and electrical majors. It morphed again in 1957 when Cal Poly’s all-male student body became co-educational.

When Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1967, the nation’s campuses were beginning a period of unrest through the free speech and anti-Vietnam War movements. What little protest the conservative campus experienced Kennedy countered by strongly backing the school’s ROTC program and holding “conversations” with students.

“He had a lot of physical courage,” Don Morris, a retired Cal Poly administrator, said while recalling several different protests on campus.

During one protest over the Vietnam War, Morris said Kennedy walked into Cal Poly’s University Union to confront the protesters.

“He just took charge and calmed it all down,” Morris said. “He has comparatively small stature, but he was very tough. He didn’t back down.”

A civic leader

Although Kennedy’s support of ROTC earned him the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award, his grounding in First Amendment issues also led him to defend acid guru Timothy Leary’s address on campus after the Farm Bureau and trustees at Paso Robles Unified School District protested.

He wrote to them: “If higher education is doing its job, students will hear these divergent viewpoints and will evaluate the content and ideas and then decide for themselves the validity of the arguments.” He often referred to his students as being “pragmatic” in their outlook.

Kennedy furthered the college’s academic reputation during his leadership by reorganizing the curriculum into four units: the School of Agriculture, School of Engineering, School of Applied Arts and School of Applied Sciences.

Four years later, the curriculum was expanded once again, adding the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, the School of Business and Social Sciences, the School of Communicative Arts and Humanities, the School of Engineering and Technology, the School of Human Development and Education, and the School of Science and Mathematics.

Kennedy was known as a prolific writer and speaker throughout his career, was a member of dozens of professional and civic organizations, and was an active fundraiser for various nonprofits. He was named San Luis Obispo’s Citizen of the Year in 1978 and, in honor of his contributions to the university, had the Robert E. Kennedy Library named for him in 1981.

Kennedy is survived by his wife of 72 years, Mary, and children Maridel, Stephen and Susan. Son Robert Jr. preceded him in death.

“He devoted his life to Cal Poly,” Mary Kennedy said Monday.

Tribune staff writers Cynthia Lambert and Larissa Doust contributed to this story.

Memorial service set for Jan. 15

A memorial service for Robert E. Kennedy will be Jan. 15 at 11 a.m. at the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church, 1515 Fredricks St. in San Luis Obispo.

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