He visualized himself “presiding over the soda fountain, making banana splits and other fantastic sundae concoctions for a bevy of young girls all in bathing suits heading for the beach, just four blocks south.”
Robert E. Kennedy, longtime president of Cal Poly, died Christmas Day.
Bob’s first job working for his father at a Depression-era Long Beach soda fountain probably didn’t prepare him for an academic career.
But low wages and a long workday that began by hosing down a row of 30-gallon cans that stood along the curb each morning taught Bob a cardinal rule: “Don’t be surprised if the glamorous job you thought you signed up for turns out to be whatever the boss wants done the most.”
He went on to graduate with a journalism degree from San Diego State University, where he heard about the institution where he would work for 39 years and serve as president from 1967 to 1979.
In 1967, Bob was appointed president of Cal Poly and kept the campus on a steady path of growth both in size and in academic excellence for the next 11 years.
During that same period, other institutions of higher education throughout the world were experiencing unprecedented turbulence.
Bob had nearly three decades of doing what “the boss wants done the most” before he became president of Cal Poly in his own right.
Julian McPhee had saved Cal Poly from closure at the low point of the Great Depression in 1933. He ran Poly on a tight budget and through his knowledge of state government, succeeded in getting much of the school’s funding from a share of the parimutuel betting tax at California’s racetracks.
Bob was an apt pupil. Although he was hired as a journalism instructor, he soon became effectively the public relations director, writing many of McPhee’s key speeches. He was frequently on the train to Sacramento to deal with matters that affected Poly’s future.
At the same time, Bob and his wife, Mary, had a wonderful family life. They raised their four children, Robert Jr., Maridel, Stephen and Susan, with lots of outdoor camping and purely family events.
Maridel recalls that, “Dad always seemed to find time for his family, from helping with term papers to planning and executing family camping trips!
“Everyone recalls the camping trip to Yosemite when he told Mom he would do all the work from set up, to the cooking and cleaning! Mary could rest in a hammock. And that was the way it was.”
For years, Bob and Mary “team-taught” a scripture class at the Methodist Church.
Richard Johnson, longtime head of the animal science program at Cal Poly and a member of the church, said, “You didn’t want to miss the fun and stimulation of their classes.”
The couple didn’t always agree: “Bob was always the practical one, where Mary was so spiritual.”
Maridel remembers that the reputation of the “Mary and Bob curriculum” sometimes embarrassed the children when they would return to San Luis Obispo for a visit.
My wife, Liz, and I always appreciated Mary’s participation in our conversations with Bob. Two points of view often brought a great deal of clarity to matters.
I’m not alone in believing that Mary was a major asset to Bob as he made important decisions concerning Poly.
Bob would bring his family into Poly-based activities when he thought it appropriate.
One such occasion was the visit of Ted Kennedy to the campus in 1960 when Ted was campaigning for his older brother, Jack, in the 1960 presidential campaign.
Bob told Maridel, “I want you to meet Ted. After all, you are a Kennedy too.”
More about Bob next week.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.