Diverse Voices from Kenyon’s Foundings

Professor Ric S. Sheffield delivers the annual Faculty Address at Kenyon’s Founders’ Day Convocation.

By Ric S. Sheffield

The following is the prepared text of the faculty address “An Acknowledgment of Diverse Voices from Kenyon’s Foundings” delivered by Ric S. Sheffield, the Peter M. Rutkoff Distinguished Teaching Professor in American Studies, at Kenyon’s Founders’ Day Convocation on Oct. 14, 2021. Access a recording of the ceremony.

I begin my talk with a confession of sorts. I’ve not much liked traditional Founders’ Day ceremonies. I’ve always thought that Founders’ Day should be about acknowledgment, a pause in the lives of institutions and their members to reflect upon noteworthy beginnings, not merely a celebration of a singular event. So, I guess that I should acknowledge that I am an unlikely deliverer of an address that has tended to espouse platitudes about the founding of this College.

Before accepting President Decatur’s gracious invitation, I had to consider carefully if I had anything of value to say about Kenyon’s founding and if there might be those in attendance who could find their own truths in the things to which I might speak. I reminded myself that I could speak about “other” founders, discoverers, trailblazers, pioneers and the like, whether they were the first, the only, or simply among those who came later and managed to move the needle forward. I decided that I could speak to you this morning about “other” beginnings and mostly nameless persons. I could speak to you, not just of structures and institutions frozen in and weathered by time, but of communities that expanded and movements that took flight from this Hill. Besides, how could I refuse an invitation to share this platform with a living trailblazer, Kenyon’s first African American president?

On occasions like this, we are prompted to think about the College’s founding by way of snippets of legendary nostalgia. One such artifact is the grand mural in Gambier’s post office. If you’ve not seen or noticed it yet, I hope you will pause to look at it when you stop to get your packages and mail this week. The mural, the product of a New Deal painting, commissioned by the federal government’s Section of Fine Arts, was done by Kenyon Art Professor Norris Rahming in 1943. It depicts a self-satisfied Philander Chase astride his horse overlooking the breathtaking expanse that is now Gambier. It suggests to the viewer, after the exercise of a bit of artistic license, that perhaps this was the moment when Bishop Chase was said to have uttered the famous phrase, “Well, this will do.” It was through Prof. Rahming and his wife that I, a brown-skinned first-generation college student born into a working-class family in Knox County, Ohio, first came to know anything about Kenyon College. My grandmother, Bertha, was the Rahmings’ domestic servant, their maid if you will, who cooked for them and cleaned their home, a large, stately structure that sits at the corner of Chase Avenue and Woodside Drive and is currently known as the Rogan House Bed & Breakfast.

The full mural in Gambier’s post office, unlike the condensed or abbreviated versions that appear on many webpages with the singular Bishop Chase figure, has a second person on horseback. His name was Henry B. Curtis, an area attorney and businessman. It reportedly was Curtis who was responsible for Bishop Chase seeing and choosing this wilderness spot for his young college. But, as I look at that mural, I try to look beyond these two men, Chase and Curtis, outside of this fabricated scene in an attempt to see the Black stable hand who served in the Curtis mansion with many other Black men and women for more than a century, an impressive abode long mentioned as a station on the underground railroad. It still stands to this day, a stately structure in which my own mother had spent time serving descendants of that same Henry Curtis who, with his wife, Elizabeth, deeded land to three Black men upon which was built the first Black church in the county.

Kenyon’s founding becomes more salient for me when I remember the other pioneers and trailblazers — some known and many others still unnamed, often from much more humble and modest beginnings — who are for me every bit as responsible for helping to build important foundations for this extraordinary institution of which we are privileged to be a part.

Founder’s Day is about acknowledgments. How many of you know that Indigenous Peoples’ Day was observed this week and that on Monday many government offices and schools were closed? While I am proud that Kenyon now acknowledges that the very hill upon which it exists was part of the ancestral homelands of the Miami, Lenape, Wyandotte and Shawnee, let us not forget that its relationship to native peoples wasn’t just the appropriation of Indian lands. Our history includes the little-known fact that at least five indigenous men of the Mohawk nation were among the first matriculants of the College, even if it happened as a consequence of missionary zeal instead of a deliberate first step toward Kenyon realizing the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that are now central to our mission and identity. And, yet, I can’t help but wish that we had told the small number of Indigenous students who have come here over the years that they were not the first and that we would pledge to honor their predecessors.

As a person of African descent, I know that there were people at Kenyon who look like me upon whose shoulders I stand. These trailblazers, even if not revered here as founders, laid the foundation for the rest of us. On this Founders’ Day, I want the members of the African Students Association to know about Kwabuku Libiete. Coming from the Gold Coast to study at the College’s Gambier Mission House in 1865, Kwabuku died at the tender age of 14 in this western wilderness and now lies buried in the College cemetery, the first and only person of African descent so honored.

Today, I wish to acknowledge other pioneers like Allen Ballard and Stanley Jackson, who arrived as Kenyon’s first Black students in 1948; and Kenneth Bluford and Mary Rucker, who became the College’s first Black faculty in the mid and late 1970s, and upon whose shoulders stand Professor Mason and Professor Kohlman, the first African American man and woman to be granted tenure as recently as the early 1990s and 2000s, long after those Black faculty pioneers set foot on this campus. 

And, you should know that brown-skinned people worked here even before then, when we locals celebrated the hiring of lifelong Mount Vernon residents Charles Duckworth, the first Black person to land a job on Kenyon’s maintenance staff, and Gene Payne, employed as the College nurse. Chris Smith, I’m proud of you and was delighted to welcome you to Kenyon as the first African American director of Health and Counseling, but it is important that you know, as many of us in the Black community have always known, that you didn’t get here by yourself.  You stand on Nurse Payne’s broad shoulders, as well as those of that other pioneer in the health and counseling center, Lena Hall, it’s first Black counseling psychologist.

My Latinx friends and colleagues should know that Alonso Alegría, Juan Mosquera, Juan DePascuale and Clara Román Odio — the latter two becoming the first Latino and Latina tenured here — paved the way for you and were here for generations of students from families for whom Spanish was their first language. Muchas gracias.

With the granting of tenure to Professor Harlene Marley as the first woman at Kenyon to achieve that rank, as well as the admission of women to the College, we saw other new beginnings that would forever shape this formerly all-male institution. Yet, we sometimes forget that other women taught in Kenyon’s classrooms long before then. Going back to the mid-1940s, Kenyon saw instructors like Elizabeth Bumer, Hazel Palmer, Nancy Cole and Mount Vernon’s Muriel Kahrl in charge of a handful of its classrooms. And yes, Georgia Nugent, Kenyon’s first woman president, stood on their shoulders as well.

And for the students and faculty of Japanese ancestry who grew up hearing painful stories about the shameful internment by the United States government of their grandparents and great grandparents, let us not forgot to acknowledge other pioneers, such as Ichiro Hasegawa, who traveled to Kenyon in 1943, one of a few institutions in this nation willing to enroll these disfavored citizens who were removed from their homes and excluded from the West Coast. I must acknowledge as well Jack Kasai ’49, a Nisei internee who volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Army to prove his loyalty to this country and later resumed his studies at Kenyon after being honorably discharged from the service.

My LGBTQ friends and colleagues should know, if they don’t already, that Professors Robert Bennett and Kathryn Edwards — as the College’s first openly gay and lesbian faculty members — laid the foundation for them and the many others to follow. Unity House, they paved the way for you.

And if I had time to continue on in this fashion, I’d want you to know about Kenyon alumnus and trustee emeritus William Lowry, after whom our incredible athletic center is named and a first in so many ways at this College; international faculty like Badie Nijim, Chitta Goswami and Jamal Zayid; the early Jewish faculty like Gershon Greenberg, Eugen Kullman, Paul Schwartz and Irving Feldman, all who taught here at a time when a few members of the faculty had the audacity to say that there should have been a quota on the number of Jews who could be admitted or hired; the founding members of the Black Student Union; the Latinx students who founded Adelante; and dozens of others who created new beginnings at this College through the founding of affinity groups like ASIA, INK [Indigenous Nations at Kenyon], MESA [Middle East Student Association], KAI [Kenyon Asian Identities], Crozier Center [for Women], QWC [Queer Women’s Collective], Unity House, NIA [Nu Iota Alpha], ISAK [International Society at Kenyon], BU [Brothers United], Sisterhood, MOC [Men of Color], and on and on.

At one point, this address was scheduled to take place at the northern end of Middle Path at historic Bexley Hall. Bexley, built in 1843, is a location on campus for which I feel a special sense of pride since it was in that building that my sister, Karen, became Kenyon’s first Black administrative secretary in the late 1960s. But then, that pride can turn to sadness when I think of what that grand building also represents. For me, there is sadness to think that we have failed to acknowledge Professor Terry Schupbach, a former member of the studio art faculty who arrived on a campus that was not ready for her or others who were differently-abled. I suspect that there are those in this audience who might remember how she struggled to go from her office in that building to her classrooms to teach. It can’t be difficult to remember how frequently she would have to drag her wheelchair behind her as she scooched herself up and down one step at a time to teach on the basement level and second floor of that inaccessible building, and later, with only a tad more dignity, fumble with an unreliable electric seat to ascend the cold concrete stairs.

For some here, accessibility became more than an abstract and burdensome requirement imposed by the federal government under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a good friend of Professor Schupbach’s told me recently, one year she chose to join the faculty procession for Honors Day, and when she had to ascend the steep steps next door at Rosse Hall, she climbed out of her wheelchair and dragged herself up those steps in full view of the parents and trustees. Of course, not long after that, a ramp was built to grant access at the rear. “Sometimes,” she said, “you have to embarrass them.” Although it was a few years later, and perhaps all of us sufficiently embarrassed, her activism led to a day when faculty, administrators and students participated in a daylong event to bring awareness to challenges faced by the disabled. Some of us can recall the chaos as attempts were made to traverse the campus on crutches and in wheelchairs. A few wore blindfolds, although it didn’t quite approximate the experience of my colleague, history professor Martin Hardeman, who was the first sightless member of the faculty.

If you think my remarks today are intended to be critical of Kenyon, I want you to know that they are intended to be just the opposite. Despite this institution’s significant shortcomings during various points in its history, it has often managed to rise above them, make amends, and reestablish the faith that many of us need to have in a place that we have come to call home.  Quite frankly, my remarks are offered in celebration of the College’s incremental victories over persistent cultural biases and institutional lethargy. Drawing upon poet Amanda Gorman’s advice, those who care about Kenyon must be willing to step into the past and be ever mindful about how to repair it. It is precisely because of Kenyon’s ability and commitment to be so much more than what it was at its beginnings that it can convince people like me to believe in its promise.

As should be apparent, the founders that I choose to acknowledge this morning did not arrive here on horseback in 1824. I’ve mentioned many people about whom you know little, if anything. It was your generation that taught mine how important it is to “say their names,” a lesson for which we are grateful. These trailblazers, even if their names and faces were not made known to us when we came to this Hill, weren’t content to see things remain as they were upon their arrival. In their own ways, they were bold enough to declare, “No, this will not do.” They came here, oftentimes quietly, mostly unnoticed, and they gave of themselves in an effort to spark new beginnings. Perhaps one day, we will see a new mural that commemorates some of these noteworthy persons as well as the contributions that they made.

Founders’ Day celebrations must amount to more than remembering the distant past. They must be about bringing the future into sharp focus. We must stop merely focusing solely upon historical figures so remote in time and cultural context that they fail to serve as inspiration for our contemporary lives. As civil rights advocate Bryan Stevenson taught us, it’s time to get “proximate.” In order for Founders’ Day to be relevant for many of us, we must be able to see ourselves in our so-called founding mothers and fathers. We should be encouraged to discover and remember as well those who looked like us, spoke like us, lived like us and cared every bit as much as we do today about things that define the character of this place.

This Founders’ Day needs to remind us of these persons who helped to shape this institution. It must remind us of those who have been inspirational. We must be reminded not to settle for simply living up to the values and ideals of those who lived here at a time that did not contemplate the presence of people like me or even most of you. Founders’ Day should inspire us by the possibilities of a greater, more inclusive institution while also confirming that all of us have both the ability as well as the responsibility to become founders ourselves.

If you take anything away from my remarks this morning, let it be that the founding of Kenyon was never a static moment, frozen in time. The founding isn’t now, nor will it ever be, complete. It continues on, even if ever so slowly, like the tranquil waters of the Kokosing River that passes at the bottom of this Hill. I hope that each of you will look to see yourselves in the many founders, take the opportunity to leave your own mark on Kenyon, and allow us to one day celebrate you as we do this morning those who came before you and upon whose shoulders we all now stand.

Thank you.