Dr. Jonas T. Kennedy, the namesake of Claflin University’s health and physical education center whose philanthropy extended to his community and beyond, died Friday, March 14, 2014. He was 97 years old.
Kennedy was born on February 12, 1917 in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Like his parents, Augustus G. Kennedy Sr. and Grace Thomas Kennedy, and two sisters, Kennedy entered Claflin University in 1933. A farmer at heart, he transferred to neighboring South Carolina State College to obtain a degree in agriculture, graduating in 1937.
Kennedy’s financial contributions to Claflin University made possible the construction of several buildings on the campus, including the Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Physical Education Center in 1980, the Grace Thomas Kennedy Business and Communications Building named in honor of his mother, and the James and Dorothy Z. Elmore Chapel. Additionally, the Augustus G. Kennedy Sr. Amphitheater is named in memory of his father.
Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale described Kennedy as a true philanthropist whose unwavering support of the University and its students was transformational.
“Claflin University will miss one of its most distinguished leal and loyal supporters,” Tisdale said. “When I came to Claflin 20 years ago, I knew of Dr. Kennedy’s historical and generous support of the institution and our students. In fact, when I was appointed president of Claflin, he was one of the first persons I called to say thank you and to ask for his continued support. In all of my years here, Dr. Kennedy has continuously met and exceeded our greatest expectations. His legacy is forever engrained in the fabric of Claflin University. He was a great man.”
Kennedy served as a Claflin trustee from 1969 to 1983, after which he was named a trustee emeritus. In 1975, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Claflin. He was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and was recipient of the Thaddeus K. Bythewood Award for his outstanding contributions to Claflin and the community in 2003.
Kennedy believed in the mission of Claflin so much that he sponsored the education of many students at the University, including two students from Africa.
“An education in an environment where moral values are nurtured along with intellectual growth is to be highly prized in today’s world,” he once said. “Claflin’s church-related heritage has been an impetus for active service to a diverse constituency. Students leave the campus with their horizons brightened and a commitment to service.
“I believe that there is an obligation to make the world a better place for all people to live in. Each must find his or her way to meet this calling.”
Kennedy began his career in education at Black High School in McBee, South Carolina, where he served as teaching principal, and started raising chickens and turkeys on the side. He taught agriculture in Clio and Spartanburg, and was a soil conservationist in Greenville.
In 1939, Kennedy took over the family farm full-time and produced essential crops throughout World War II. He mastered turkey farming and was recognized internationally as an expert in turkey production, serving as a farming consultant to several Africa countries and traveling extensively to observe farming techniques on every continent except Australia.
As a leading farmer and owner and operator of Kennedy Turkey Farm in Bennettsville, Kennedy was the only South Carolina farmer invited by President Lyndon B. Johnson to participate in a national farm policy conference in 1960. He was voted Farmer of the Year in 1977, received the 1989 Administrator’s Award from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, and has been featured in Ebony magazine, Turkey World and The Progressive Farmer.
In 1984, a tornado destroyed his turkey farm and he decided not to rebuild.
Kennedy is a former member of the Marlboro County Highway Commission, the African Scholarship Education Committee and the Board of Directors of Marlboro General Hospital. He served as president of the Marlboro County NAACP from 1947 to 1958.
Kennedy was a member of Bennettsville’s Level Green United Methodist Church. In 1992, he started contributing to Africa University, a school in Zimbabwe sponsored by the South Carolina United Methodist Conference. Africa University has named buildings after him and his wife, the late Odette Miller Kennedy. They have one daughter, Deidre.
“Dr. Kennedy was a great friend, a very modest man and a major supporter of Claflin University,” said the Rev. Whittaker V. Middleton, Claflin’s vice president for Institutional Advancement. “He was the largest individual donor over a lifetime for Claflin. He gave to Claflin because he believed in the mission of the University and he believed in the biblical teaching on giving.
“As Dr. Kennedy saw it, he was giving back some of what God had blessed him with. Giving was a way of life for Dr. Kennedy.”