Archive for Sunday, January 22, 1995


January 22, 1995


— The new first lady at KU is a 21st-century woman. She has a teaching career and is parent to an extended family.

Leah Hemenway stood in front of 200 federal inmates.

"Here we are singing 'Old McDonald' and 'Working on the Railroad.' It's crazy," she said.

That experience 12 years ago teaching English to incarcerated Haitians was just one stop on a teaching career at public schools, colleges and universities.

But the commitment from Leah and her husband, Robert, to the political refugees didn't stop at the prison gate. Two were placed in the custody of the Hemenways.

Their kids doubled up in bedrooms and made way for Seneque Cesar and Roger Robert.

"I worked with them constantly," Leah said. "We sort of became their parents."

Acclimating them to Kentucky was a challenge. After all, these folks were making the transition from feudal society to modern industrial nation.

Now, it's the Hemenways moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Robert Hemenway, chancellor of the University of Kentucky's campus in Lexington, will soon become the new chancellor at Kansas University.

Leah's task is to move the two children still living at home -- Zack, 11, and Arna, 7 -- to the chancellor's mansion at KU.

Not everyone is completely sold on that idea.

"There's bad and good," says Arna, squirming on his brother's bed. "I'm leaving friends here. I'm getting new friends there."

Leah says she's excited about the prospect of life in Lawrence. She likes the city's vibrant downtown, a contrast to Lexington's.

"Everyone we've met has been really nice," she said.

Leah, 41, was born in Louisville but grew up in Cincinnati. Her parents, Theodore and Elizabeth, put 10 of their 11 children through college.

Leah graduated from Oberlin College, studying English and French. She served as a Vista volunteer in North Carolina before receiving a master's degree in English from UK.

The job change means Leah will leave her beloved book club.

"I read four or five books a week," she says. "All kinds -- Victorian, mysteries. I keep up on African-American writing."

The Hemenways have a strong marriage.

"She's an intelligent, perceptive person," Robert Hemenway said. "I find being able to talk -- not so much about the job, but the world around us, the people we meet -- is extremely important in preparing me for decisions I make."

He said Leah has been supportive in raising Hemenway's eight children, some from two previous marriages.

"We're real partners," he said.

Hemenway's eldest, 27-year-old Gina, lives on a farm near Dodge, Neb. The first son, Jeremy, 25, graduated from University of Wyoming and lives in Jackson Hole.

Robin, 24, entered KU's graduate school last fall. Karintha, 20, is a junior at the University of Oklahoma. Langston and Matt, 18-year-old twins, split when it came to college. Langston is at OU. Matt went for UK.

Departing Lexington means Leah will resign from Lexington Community College. She'd like to keep her hand in education, perhaps as a volunteer.

"I enjoy teaching. It's an opportunity to open minds."

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