Don Kennedy: University President and Lap Counter Nonpareil
Stanford lost a true icon, former university president Donald Kennedy, to the coronavirus on Tuesday. Kennedy is recognized by many as the man who orchestrated Stanford's growth and development into one of the world's greatest universities.
He's also well remembered for his wicked sense of humor, deep love of sports, and early morning runs with students up to the Stanford Dish.
The first time I met Kennedy was in the fall of 1968. I was beginning my sophomore year at Stanford and working as the Sports Editor of the Daily.
One day as I was walking across White Plaza en route to a class, Kennedy strode up to me and introduced himself.
"Hi, are you Gary Cavalli?" he asked. After I answered in the affirmative, he stuck out his hand and said, "Well, I'm Don Kennedy. I teach human biology here, and I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your columns in the Daily. You're doing a great job. I think this is the best sports coverage we've ever had."
You might say the man knew how to make a good first impression.
That was 52 years ago, and I still have a warm spot in my heart for Kennedy. Not just from that conversation, but from two opportunities I had to work closely with him.
One was the faculty advisory board hearing into the firing of Stanford English professor Bruce Franklin, who was charged with inciting violence on campus; the other was the Stanford Centennial Celebration.
The Franklin hearings were highly charged, to say the least, and captured the attention of the national and local media. I worked with Kennedy, the board chairman, for six weeks—handling media relations and issuing daily news reports—and came to greatly admire his intelligence, wit, reason, and poise under pressure.
Then in 1991, when Kennedy was the University President and our PR/Marketing firm, Cavalli and Cribbs, was drafted to help organize and promote Stanford's Centennial, I again saw a master motivator and relationship-builder in action.
Years later, Kennedy somehow got wind of the fact that I was writing a story for Stanford Magazine on the famous U.S. vs. USSR track meet at Stanford Stadium in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. He called me and enthusiastically told me he'd worked at the meet as a lap counter.
“I was terrified,” Kennedy told me. “There had been a terrible incident at the previous meet in Philadelphia. People were lapping each other and the lap counter got mixed up and lost track of how many laps some of the runners had completed. In our meet, Pyotor Bolotnikov ran away with the 10,000 meter run. We had to keep straight who was in second and third place, when most of the field had been lapped. Fortunately, we got it right.”
Throughout his 88 years on the planet, Don Kennedy got a lot of things right.