Robert E. “Bob” Hemenway
Robert “Bob” Hemenway, pioneering African American Literature scholar, lifelong educator, and 16th Chancellor of the University of Kansas, passed away on Friday in Lenexa, Kansas. He was 73.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. August 9th, at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, following a private burial service.
Hemenway, a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha (BA, ’63) and Kent State University (PhD, ’66), will be remembered for his seminal work, the first biography of Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston, which was named a New York Times’ Best Book of 1978. Subsequent articles in the Times referred to the book as “groundbreaking” and “revelatory.” Hemenway’s work and original research is regarded as a principal force in the worldwide resurgence of Hurston’s fiction. When Hurston died penniless in 1960, none of her books were in print. Today, Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God is required reading for most high school literature courses.
He will also be remembered as a dedicated educator and community leader who had a career spanning nearly six decades as a professor, scholar, mentor, and administrator. After serving as Chair of the English Department at the University of Kentucky and Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, he returned as Chancellor of the University of Kentucky’s Lexington campus, before being named Chancellor of the University of Kansas in 1995.
Affectionately known as “Chancellor Bob,” Hemenway led the University of Kansas to a top 30 ranking in the US News and World Report evaluation of all national universities. He also oversaw a renaissance of the University of Kansas Medical Center, culminating in a committed drive starting in 2006 to gain National Cancer Institute Designation, signifying the highest possible standards of national cancer research, an achievement which was realized six years later.
Even as he became an administrator, Hemenway never lost his passion for teaching and engaging with students. He led 7:30 am English and American Studies courses throughout his tenure as Chancellor. Hemenway also served as Chair of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors of the American Council on Education.
Upon retirement in 2009, his legacy was honored by the Dole Institute Robert Hemenway Award for Outstanding Public Service, and by the Robert E. Hemenway Life Sciences Innovation Center, a 200,000 square foot research facility on the KU Medical Center’s campus.
Around the university, Hemenway was known for his straw hats and warm, personable approach, often stopping to chat with students, professors, personnel, and parents during the regular campus walks he took with his wife.
Hemenway will be remembered by his wife of 34 years, Leah, as well as his daughter Gina Ruskamp (and husband Ron), his daughter Robin (and husband Gary), his son Jeremy (and wife Kim), his daughter Karintha (and husband Matthias), his son Langston (and partner Heather), his son Matthew (and wife Laura-Kathrin), his son Zack (and wife Meghan), his son Arna (and wife Marissa), as well as 12 grandchildren. He encouraged his children and students alike to always, in the words of Hurston, “jump at the sun,” because “we might not land on the sun, but at least we’ll get off the ground.”
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials be made to the Robert E. Hemenway Scholarship at the University of Kansas. Gifts may be sent care of KU Endowment, P.O. Box 928, Lawrence, KS 66044.
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