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Loved ones honor the life of Donald Kennedy, former Stanford president who helped transform university

Family, friends and former colleagues among those honoring Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s eighth president, at a celebration of life in Stanford Memorial Church on Sunday.

Those who knew Donald Kennedy smiled, laughed and cried together inside Stanford Memorial Church on Sunday as they shared memories of the university’s eighth president who helped transform Stanford into one of the nation’s top research and teaching universities.

Donald Kennedy speaks at a Commencement Ceremony. (Image credit: Peninsula-Times Tribune Courtesy Stanford University Special Collection and University Archives)

Rain streamed down Memorial Church’s stained-glass windows as the celebration of life honored Kennedy, a neurobiologist who led Stanford for 12 years as president. He died on April 21, 2020, of COVID-19. He was 88.

Kennedy was well-known as a beloved teacher, renowned biologist, an institution builder, a national voice for science and research and a warm, energetic and good-humored leader, said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the memorial.

The two presidents met through a mutual friend more than two decades ago, just as Tessier-Lavigne was first joining Stanford’s faculty and Kennedy was moving to Washington D.C. to run Science magazine as its editor-in-chief.

When Tessier-Lavigne became president in 2016, he saw how foundational Kennedy’s contributions were to building the Stanford of today, he said, citing Kennedy’s devotion to students, drive to elevate teaching and enriching the undergraduate experience, focus on building the humanities and strengthening all aspects of the academic enterprise and passion for public service.

“The values and principles that Don articulated – around service, academic freedom, and the importance of scientific research – continue to resonate with our community today,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean for Religious and Spiritual Life, emerita, described Kennedy as a “great soul” who was generous, optimistic and kind.

“He believed in each of us, believed in our potential, and as president, as editor, as scientist, as naturalist, as mentor, as teacher, as colleague, as civic leader, as friend, as father, grandfather and husband, he laid the groundwork for our promise to be fulfilled,” she said.

The memorial included several former colleagues sharing details of Kennedy’s wide-reaching impact. Among the speakers were: Jeffrey Wine, Stanford’s Benjamin Scott Crocker Professor of Human Biology, emeritus; Bill Chace, president emeritus of Emory University and Wesleyan University and Stanford professor of English emeritus; and Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

They were joined Sunday by Kennedy’s wife, Robin, and his children, Page Kennedy, Julia Kennedy Tussing, Cameron Kennedy and Jamie Hamill. They shared fond memories such as when their father brought one of his daughters a pickled octopus for Christmas and when he wrote pun-filled poetry.

Infectious curiosity

Howard Fields, professor emeritus of the University of California, San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences, recalled meeting Kennedy in 1960 when Fields arrived at Stanford as a medical student and Kennedy arrived as an assistant professor of biology.

Kennedy had infectious curiosity and enthusiasm for the natural world and research, Fields said. His energy was so high, Fields often wondered whether he ever slept. And he always seemed to enjoy what he was doing, Fields said.

“As an example, once, when I asked him what he enjoyed most about being Stanford president, he said, ‘I love having my own fire department. I can take a ride in a fire engine any time I want,’” Fields told the crowd Sunday, to laughter.

At the time of his death, Kennedy was also the Bing Professor for Environmental Sciences, Emeritus, and senior fellow, emeritus, of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

A dedication to service

After serving a year as provost, Kennedy became president of Stanford in 1980, and his tenure was marked by a renewed commitment to the university’s teaching mission. Among his achievements, Kennedy launched a program now known as the Haas Center for Public Service, which offers the Donald Kennedy Public Service Fellowship, funding summer service projects for undergraduate students.

From “A Day in the life of Donald Kennedy,” taken on Oct. 15, 1982 for Campus Report. (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

Catherine Milton, founding director of the Haas Center, first met Kennedy in 1978 when he was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In that role, he faced challenging controversies such as the banning of saccharin and alcohol beverage labeling.

She later worked with him for 12 years as his special assistant for public service at Stanford. Speaking at the memorial, Milton shared how Kennedy “provided that magical poetry that lifted all of us who cared about public service,” she said. “He told us that service was not just fulfilling obligations but nothing less than the infusion of meaning into our lives.”

Milton added that she recently heard Haas Center students talking about their work on climate change during their Cardinal Quarter – a full-time, public service experience designed to integrate academic learning with field-based experience.

She thought to herself, “Don’s vision is alive and his work is continuing.”

Kennedy also led the nearly $1.3 billion Stanford Centennial Campaign – the largest sum raised in higher education at the time – which provided funding for new equipment, buildings and financial aid. The campaign’s fundraising goals also shifted to include $40 million for earthquake-related repair projects after the devastation of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

‘Students’ president’

Beyond his transformational work in academic and administrative changes, Kennedy connected well with students. An avid runner, Kennedy often ran the Dish, providing an open invitation for students to join him on the run.

He’ll always be remembered as the “students’ president” who ensured every student would have an opportunity for meaningful public service and often attended rallies, performances and athletics events, said former Stanford Board Chair James C. Gaither.

“Don was brilliant without causing others to feel less so, always upbeat and optimistic,” he said. “He helped you learn without feeling that you were being taught. He conveyed a sense of wonder about nature, about life, about ways to make a difference. He always made you feel special.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was one of the students for whom Kennedy was a role model. A 1990 photo shows Booker, then a Stanford senior, lifting 6-foot-tall Kennedy off his feet in a hug at the end of a football victory. On Sunday, Booker detailed the many ways that Kennedy helped him as a young adult, often treating him “like family” and becoming one of his “great life mentors in leadership.”

The memorial included performances by the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, which at times rehearsed in Kennedy’s living room.

As the memorial ended, Kennedy’s own voice echoed through Stanford Memorial Church as an audio recording played over the speakers. Several audience members nodded knowingly as Kennedy recited one of his favorite quotations from former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, which he often shared with graduates during Stanford’s annual Commencement Ceremony:

“Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.”

Those interested in making a gift in Kennedy’s memory are asked to consider supporting either of the following:

  • Stanford University Haas Center for Public Service. Gifts will support students studying human biology, as they pursue transformational public service opportunities. Gifts can be made online here or checks can be made out to Stanford University. Notate your gift: “In memory of Don Kennedy – Haas Center/HumBio”
  • Stanford Hillel. Gifts will support spiritually engaging High Holy Day worship for the Stanford community. Donations can be made online here or checks can be made out to Hillel at Stanford. Note your gift: “In honor of Don Kennedy”