“Storytelling is powerful, literature is life-inspiring, and narrative is a great teacher,” Robert Hemenway says.
Hemenway retires Tuesday after 14 years as Kansas University’s 16th chancellor.
The announcement of his retirement in December provided others with opportunities to tell the story of his long, prestigious academic career in higher education. Retirement preparations gave Hemenway an opportunity to reflect on how his life story was shaped by those who inspired and encouraged him.
“My father, Myrle, now 92, was a hard worker and a great storyteller,” Hemenway says. “I loved hearing him tell how he overcame financial obstacles to follow his dream of getting a college education. He became a teacher, a junior high principal and a professor. My mother, Leone, was also a teacher and taught elementary school for 27 years. They loved teaching and were avid readers.”
Hemenway inherited their passions.
“I loved reading and writing and did it all the time,” he says.
Another inspiration was his high school English teacher, Marian Glassie.
“She introduced me to Shakespeare and inspired me to read and love his works,” he recalls. “Her son Tim and I were great friends, and I was at his house a lot, but spent most of the time talking to his mother about the importance and value of literature.”
It was this understanding that led Hemenway to study English at the University of Nebraska.
“I realized I could get a job making a living doing what I loved the most — reading and writing,” he says. “I immersed myself in reading great American writers like Hemingway and Faulkner.”
He says he studied more than 40 hours a week and doesn’t ever remember getting into any trouble.
“I suppose you could call me straight-laced,” he acknowledges. “I just loved studying and reading literature, and then writing about the insights I gained.”
Unlike his father, Hemenway’s studies weren’t hampered and protracted by financial constraints. Thanks to funding provided as a result of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, Hemenway completed his bachelor’s degree and doctorate within seven years of graduating from Hastings (Neb.) High School.
He became an English professor ,and his inherited love of narrative and storytelling fueled his interest in African-American literature.
“I discovered the stories and writings of authors like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and realized they had so much to offer in helping me to understand some of the issues of the time,” he explains. “I also realized these authors were denied recognition in the general field of literature, and their works weren’t even listed as high school reading when I was growing up.”
He published an acclaimed literary biography of African-American folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston.
In spite of increasing administrative responsibilities over the years, Hemenway continued to teach.
“I love teaching,” he says. “I’ve always felt a real sense of mission as a teacher and learned first-hand how teachers can inspire students. I believe English teachers are the keepers of our culture, and I’ll continue to champion their cause whenever I can.”