By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Pushing Things AlongIt’s not unusual these days for new faculty members to point to the city of Memphis as a key recruitment asset for Rhodes. That was not the case in 1970. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in the city two years earlier and the tragedy seemed to sign a death warrant for downtown. The Peabody hotel was shuttered, stores were closing, businesses were moving east. There was one restaurant open after dark.
None of which deterred Mike Kirby. What he saw on his first visit was “a beautiful campus in an attractive neighborhood and a department that was considering establishing an Urban Studies program.” And an unparalleled laboratory for studying urban issues.
Although enthusiastic about the new course of study, Kirby was fresh out of graduate school and had no experience with internship programs. He learned by reading the newspapers (there were two dailies at the time) that Otis Higgs, an African American criminal court judge, had established a program that provided first offenders guilty of relatively minor crimes volunteer counselors rather than incarceration. Kirby called Judge Higgs who referred him to program administrator Richard Borys. Borys turned out to be a neighbor in the Vollintine Evergreen Community Association (VECA), the neighborhood that encompasses the Rhodes campus.
Working with Borys, Kirby was able to create internships for his students in city and county programs. He also began to collect data for the city and for his own research purposes.
“I think I gained notoriety through the scale of what was provided,” he says with a smile.
He continued to conduct surveys for the city through the years, building relationships with city officials as he went.
Perhaps the most comprehensive is the Memphis Poll, conducted by Kirby since 1993 to measure Memphians’ satisfaction with city services. The 200+ page annual report has been described by Memphis magazine as “the city’s equivalent of the Consumer Confidence Index.”
Kirby also got his students involved in VECA which, at that time, was an all-white neighborhood with attractive and affordable houses. African Americans began to move in.
“There was a lot of racial tension,” Kirby recalls. “The neighborhood was remarkable in that a small number of people came together and said, ‘We have to learn to communicate.’ VECA started a newsletter and had monthly meetings. It didn’t take too long to establish a comfort level. Pretty soon being biracial became a point of pride.”
Kirby recalls that he did not become active in the neighborhood association when he first moved to Memphis because “I was too busy downtown.” By that he means developing relationships with city agencies and administrators that exist to this day. When he did turn his attention—and that of his students—to VECA, he was quickly elected president of the association. As usual, his work was both a personal passion and a professional exercise.
“There were a lot of old houses in the area that needed attention and I was interested in exploring the relationship between neighborhoods and City Hall,” he recalls. “Those were the years that I gained an appreciation for street level bureaucrats, those faceless people in white city cars who are not decision makers but who are charged with dealing with issues and never have enough resources.”
In the early years, Kirby also struggled with lack of resources. His first office was in one of the “shacks,” converted World War II Army barracks on the north side of campus. Plus, there was never enough computing power on campus to deal with the reams of data he and his students collected. He laughs as he recalls the clunky computer system on the first floor of Palmer Hall that was reserved for administrative use.
“They let me use it at night,” he says. “You entered data with punch cards and they would get jammed. I can remember crawling around on the floor with a flashlight trying to find the source of the problem.”
Things improved slowly. In the 1980s and ’90s Kirby was constantly on the lookout for software that would help him organize his data. In 1999 Biology professor David Kesler asked the political scientist to accompany him to a meeting about Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. Afterward, the two joined forces with other professors to become what some referred to as the “GIS Groupies.” These pioneers were so enthusiastic about the potential of the new technology with the steep learning curve that they slowly convinced the rest of the campus that the payoff was worth the trouble. Today there’s a laboratory in Frazier Jelke that’s a resource for all departments and a class where interested students can learn the technology for themselves.
Kirby called on all of these skills, experiences and relationships in 2004 when he encountered a situation that horrified him. Taking a group of students to see some affordable housing built by VECA Community Development Corporation in a neighborhood no more than a mile from the Rhodes campus, he saw “illicit drug sales in open daylight, weeds struggling to push past litter and vacant lots with hundreds of old tires.
“Government was missing in action,” he told the Memphis Daily News recently. He and other faculty colleagues set about to change that. They applied for, and received, a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to open a community resource center in the neighborhood. They hired a full-time community liaison and each professor tackled the area that fit his or her area of expertise.
Kirby worked with business owners and campaigned relentlessly for city agencies to come back into the area. His persistence paid off when the Memphis Police Department opened a station on Hollywood Street and Peres Avenue. Kirby attracted several city and county agencies to attend monthly meetings with neighborhood residents. The meetings, known as the Police and Joint Agency Committee, have now become models for other neighborhoods in the city and across the country. The Plough Foundation has been so impressed it endowed a chair in Urban Studies (Kirby was its first occupant) and recently donated another $750,000 so Rhodes can continue and expand its work in the area.
Kirby is not concerned that the program will be diminished by his retirement.
“What the Plough Foundation has given us is an opportunity to work in the area year after year,” he told the Daily News. “This is going to continue forever. My position is endowed, so whoever takes over from me will continue working in perpetuity.”
And what’s next for Mike Kirby?
“I’m going to sort through the things I really want to do, that are most important to me and the community,” he says. “I just plan to use my skills to help push things along.”
Then immediately he launches into discussing a VECA project that aims to establish block clubs in its northwest quadrant, a residential neighborhood near a decaying commercial center.
“The people there are really excited,” he says. “They think they can succeed and so do I. The effort will be built on simple ideas like cleanups and dealing with vacant houses.”
All familiar territory for a man who refuses to consider himself a pioneer.
“I was just doing my job,” he claims.
Kesler ReinventedWhile some people celebrate the arrival of spring when they see the first robin or crocus, many at Rhodes mark the season’s official onset when the first e-mail from Professor David Kesler arrives. “Two seats available for a Wolf River trip,” might be the wording. No need to say more. His faculty and staff colleagues are well aware that the excursions along the wild, 14-mile “Ghost River” section of the Wolf in neighboring Fayette County are a treat. Many have availed themselves over the years.
He’s just as likely to be recruiting volunteers to help remove invasive species in the old forest area of Overton Park just across the street from the college, or to get on board with some green initiative on campus. Not surprising for an ecologist, perhaps, but even for one so labeled, Kesler goes about his environmental crusades with great vigor.
He was a natural, then, to lead the effort to expand the Environmental Science program at Rhodes by adding an Environmental Studies component. He had done such things before by helping to found the campuswide Environmental Planning Cooperative, which strives to institutionalize environmentally sustainable practices, and the Geographic Information System (GIS) program used by all departments. And he did his usual fine job of getting the Environmental Studies program established.
According to Associate Professor of History Jeff Jackson, who followed him as director of the program, “David has worked tirelessly to bring environmental issues into the curriculum. Without him, there could be no interdisciplinary Environmental Science program at Rhodes, and I’m convinced that there would be no Environmental Studies program.
“He has overseen the curricula of these programs; worked to create off-campus study opportunities for students; helped to establish connections between the program and environmental groups in the Memphis community; organized events and speakers for the program; advocated for the program with faculty, administrators and trustees; and continued to collaborate in raising funds to establish the three postdoctoral positions as permanent faculty positions.”
Kesler is also well known on campus for the Coral Reef Ecology course he founded with retired geology professor Carol Ekstrom and first offered in 1991. Almost every year since, students have done intensive preparation on campus in a two-credit course reading primary literature, then doing field work for two weeks at the Marine Station on Roatan Island, Honduras with Kesler and other professors (Cox, Blundon, Brewer, and Gannon). Kesler doesn’t deny that the exotic location is part of the draw but believes it is more than that. For one thing, the research is intensive. For another, “It allows students to confront a challenge, succeed and have confidence to face the next challenge.
“I remember once in the early years when we did field work in the Bahamas, we approached a hypersaline lake. It smelled awful. Carol and I waded in and encouraged the students to do the same. Climbing out, covered with mud, one student said, ‘I can’t believe I did that!’” Kesler’s response to her was, “Just think what else you can do!”
Kesler came to Rhodes well prepared for leadership. His grandfather was a college professor, his father was a Ph.D. chemist and school board chair, and his mother was an author and college trustee. He knew what it took—degrees from prestigious institutions and a stellar academic record. He graduated with honors from Denison University, earned a M.S. in Zoology from the University of Rhode Island and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He did research for the National Science Foundation at Earlham Biological Station and for DuPont, and later taught at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University.
Still, despite his pedigree and his many contributions to the life of the college, he shrugs off any talk of a legacy. “I would like to be remembered as someone who carried his share of the weight,” he says. “I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with excellent colleagues and for the sense of community here.”
Thinking about the campus and city that have been his home for 30 years, his memories are mostly positive. There are only a few regrets. “Rhodes is a very different place today from the one I joined as an assistant professor in 1980,” he muses. “Today the expectations are clear and there is a mentoring system in place for new faculty members. Back then there was no one to sit down with you and say, ‘Here’s what’s really important. Focus on that.’”
There is a sign tucked behind Kesler’s desk that can barely be seen when leaving his office. It says, “Make the next class the best one yet.” One of his regrets is that there were days when he could have paid more attention to students needing help, thought more deeply about course design, set a better example, or worked longer on “getting it right.”
He also regrets the loss of some long-gone customs—faculty and their families gathering at the home of then-dean Harmon Dunathan who decked his Christmas tree with lighted candles for the occasion; holiday parties sponsored by the Association of Rhodes Women where the men sang carols and David Jeter was Santa Claus; the mailroom in Palmer Hall where the late English professor Jack Farris smoked his pipe and held forth to mail-gatherers each morning.
Then he looks resolutely forward, explaining that he and his wife Alice McCabe have bought a house in the Iowa town where they both grew up. There, he says, he will continue the woodworking he began several years ago, keep a few colonies of bees, and he notes that there is a creek at the end of his street where “no one has worked up the mussels.” Like the wrinkled sign on Kesler’s office door saying, “Life is a journey, not a guided tour,” Kesler’s journey continues, but away from Rhodes. “When I leave, I go,” he says firmly. “I always said I wanted to leave at the top of my game while I still had the energy to reinvent myself. That’s what I plan to do.”