Cal Poly President Emeritus Robert E. Kennedy, who presided over the university for more than 12 years and continued his involvement with the university after retirement, died on Dec. 25, 2010
Cal Poly students may confuse Kennedy with the presidential family from Massachusetts or know him for the name plastered across the library front, but he was much more to the university than just a name. Kennedy was the seventh president at Cal Poly; he took the position in 1967.
The leadership Kennedy exuded during his time as president inspired Dr. Joe Sabol, an agriculture professor hired in 1972.
“Dr. Kennedy became an inspiration and a friend to me,” Sabol said. “Not only was he a great leader, he truly believed in the learn by doing philosophy.”
Sabol said Kennedy was a great man, husband, listener and father.
“He wasn’t a physically big and tall man like some of the presidents who preceded him, but he was very bright and stood up for what he believed in,” Sabol said.
Julian McPhee was one of Cal Poly’s presidents prior to Kennedy. Kennedy served as McPhee’s assistant before he became president himself. It was during this time that Kennedy learned how to be a leader, Sabol said.
“He was a student of McPhee’s,” he said. “Although they did not have exactly the same style of leadership, Kennedy learned how to make his own mark.”
As stated in a Cal Poly press release, the university was divided into four colleges in 1967: Agriculture, Engineering, Applied Arts and Applied Sciences. By the time Kennedy retired in 1979, the university had not only doubled the number of enrolled students to 16,000, but Cal Poly was divided into seven colleges: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Architecture and Environmental Design, Business and Social Sciences, Communicative Arts and Humanities, Engineering and Technology, Human Development and Education and Science and Mathematics.
Everett Chandler, who worked in Student Affairs during Kennedy’s tenure, said the departments weren’t the only things changed during Kennedy’s presidency.
“Cal Poly was a brand new institution when Kennedy arrived,” Chandler said. “There were only four permanent buildings and many temporary things. During Bob’s time as president, the construction of many more buildings happened.”
The campus grew in size to 6,000 acres with the construction of major buildings students still utilize today. Science North, Computer Science, the Julian A. McPhee University Union, Yosemite Hall and the Sierra Madre dorms were among the buildings constructed during Kennedy’s presidency, as stated in a Cal Poly press release.
In terms of the job, Kennedy was intense; it meant a lot to him, Chandler said. Even after his retirement, he was still interested in the campus and its development.
Jim Landreth, the vice president of finance during Kennedy’s presidency described him as a man of integrity.
“His vision for Cal Poly was phenomenal,” Landreth said. “He kept a positive relationship with the Chancellor’s Office which made support for things that the university was considering easier to come by with the trustees.”
Kennedy also maintained good standing with his colleagues at the university.
“A feeling of teamwork doesn’t always exist in administration, but with Kennedy there was,” Chandler said.
Landreth shared stories of Kennedy as a man with a sense of humor, often uniting the office.
When Kennedy retired from his presidency at Cal Poly, the California State University trustees voted to name the campus’ new library building the Robert E. Kennedy Library in honor of his dedication to the university, as stated in a press release.
“His contribution to higher education — and most importantly Cal Poly — was undeniable; that is why his name is on that library,” Landreth said. “All of us old timers respected him and we miss him.”
A memorial service for Kennedy will be held on Jan. 15 at the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church at 11 a.m.