My parents first met at the Dope Shop, the old on-campus restaurant that, according to them, had “the best milkshakes.” Last week, more than 30 years later, the athletic department publicly announced that a press box will be built overlooking Koskinen stadium named after my parents, Chris and Ana Kennedy.
In between those two moments, many of our major family events have been associated with Duke. The day I was born, Duke beat Tennessee in football and as such, one of the football coach’s wives wanted my parents to name me “Tennessee.” I am so glad they chose Joseph. In 1991, we took our family vacation to the Final Four where I remember Grant Hill playing the piano in the hotel lobby after winning the national championship. Every year, at our family Christmas party, where most of the guests are athletic department staff, my father dresses up as Santa, makes snarky comments and hands out presents. We rarely missed a Duke athletic event. I played lacrosse at Duke. We watched my sister’s graduation from the top of the Yoh football building. Simply stated, our family life has been intertwined with Duke University.
At the time my parents met, both were PhD candidates, my father in English literature and my mother in Spanish. My mother went on to teach Spanish at Duke and subsequently at N.C. State, giving her more free time to take care of my sister and me. My father began working in the athletic department in 1977, when, as he described it, the entire athletic department consisted of three people: Tom Butters (Duke’s hall-of-fame former athletic director), my father and their assistant.
My father has worked in the athletic department ever since and is now the deputy director of athletics and helps to oversee a staff of more than 200 people. In that time span, he has implemented many of the programs that have become the cornerstone of Duke athletics: academic programs to increase graduation rates and compliance programs that uphold the integrity of the department. He has been largely responsible for many of those things we love about Duke athletics: winning on the field, academic excellence, class and integrity. As Dr. Kevin White, the current director of athletics, once said in a much more eloquent manner, “In many ways Chris has served as the conscience of Duke athletics.” Similarly, in many ways, my mother has served as the conscience of our family. Many of those values that my parents live by, I see reflected in the athletic department.
There are many accomplishments to list that would be relevant, but I don’t think that would do them justice. One thing I’ve learned from my parents is that a life is not defined by accomplishments. As my mother is fond of saying, there is more to life than Duke basketball. The only way I know how to truly capture who they are is to say the following: Think of that moment when the wind was in your face, when all of a sudden your minutes of sun turned to hours of storm, when you were holding on with one hand and your fingers started slipping, when you were faced with a defining choice and doing wrong was easy and doing right was hard. That moment when expediency called for compromise and you almost gave in but you listened to the better part of your being and stood up for what was right—and maybe your life has been harder for it. Maybe, at night, when it’s just you and your thoughts, you lie awake thinking about what would have been had you gone the easy route, but you fall asleep when you realize you wouldn’t have it any other way.
I truly believe that it’s those moments that define us and give our lives significance. No one has had more such moments than my parents. To me, they represent the best in all of us. What we all could be. Some have called it conscience or heart or soul or morals or integrity or character. What it is, I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve watched my parents consistently choose this righteous path and it gives me hope. Hope that there are still people out there who live their lives not in furtherance of material achievements but rest their ultimate self-worth on those moments when the world was against them and they did what they knew was right anyway.
In large part, I chose to go to Duke because I felt, as a university, it strives every day to cultivate this appeal to our higher angels. I sincerely think that my parents have been materially responsible for this culture that gives us all pride when we say that we are Blue Devils. So I hope that when the press box is built and my parents’ names are hung, it stands for those moments when we are at our best. I hope that it stands as a reminder that doing the right thing in your darkest hour will lead to your finest moments. I hope that for those who were not fortunate enough to know my parents, it is a beacon of integrity, much as they have been for me, my sister, my family and the many people they have touched. And finally, I hope that it will always stand for those ideals that make being a Duke Blue Devil so special.
In conclusion, to the anonymous alum who made this possible: I don’t know your specific reason for donating this money, but I have to believe that you feel the same way I do. To that person or group of people, on behalf of my family and myself, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
To the Duke coaches and staff who have been a part of our family for all these years and helped make this possible, thank you.
And to all Blue Devils, past, present and future: Go Duke. Go to Hell Carolina.
Joseph Eugene Kennedy