The call brought Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning out of an early morning meeting. Crews Lake Middle School was on the phone. The principal hadn’t arrived. There were reports of a terrible wreck along his usual commute, and they were worried.
Saying he was on it, Browning rang up Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco and put the situation to him. “I’ll call you back,” Nocco said. Ten long minutes ticked by. Then, Nocco, on the phone.
“My condolences,” he said.
Now, Browning. “Those are the words no one wants to hear.”
Thus began what Browning would come to know as “the worst I’ve had as the superintendent of schools.”
Adam Kennedy was, like many U.S. Marines, a Renaissance man. Smoker of savory meats; baker of perfect cheesecakes; housepainter, woodworker and cabinetmaker; golfer, triathlete, Xbox aficionado and Pokémon shark; tank driver and fan of Broadway musicals; warrior-philosopher, educator and servant leader.
And — and! — marvel his friends — he more or less mastered virtually all these skills before that maker of instant experts, YouTube, entered our lives. Adam Kennedy was old school.
Also, this: He is missed. As Nocco reported to Browning, the 46-year-old died on the way to work Jan. 20, when his 12-year-old Dodge pickup slammed into the back of a logging truck on State Road 52 that had slowed to make a turn just west of U.S. Highway 41.
A couple of weeks ago, some 800 mourners filled the school’s gymnasium to express, with tears and tender memories, why his premature passing left a sinkhole that will be slow to fill.
“He never gave you the answer,” Clarissa Stokes, his student, said into a melancholy microphone the other night. “He made you work for it.”
This was not College of Education theory at work. This was a revelation that came to Capt. Kennedy in the cockpit of an M1A1 Abrams tank on the outskirts of Baghdad. Deployed as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, it came to Kennedy he wasn’t sure exactly where he was, or what exactly motivated the Iraqis.
There in his war machine, Kennedy made a promise: If God saw fit to deliver him home, he would do whatever he could to make sure future generations of Americans did not suffer a similar fundamental shortcoming about the world.
It was a vow he followed as surely as if it had been an order from a commanding general.
Kennedy made it home, made his way into teaching, and began making his mark on young minds by inspiring them with the stories of those who went before.
Teaching rewarded him not only with young minds flickering to life, but also dedicated friends and a wife, Abigail, also a teacher, and their children, grade-schoolers Ethan and Hannah.
All were, and remain, staggered. Because Kennedy was young. And vibrant. But, as colleague Freda Abercrombie rightly noted, “It is not always the leaning tree that falls.”
Once a commander, in the classroom he was commanding.
“He told us, ‘Never present a problem without offering a solution,’” Stokes recited, “‘because then, you’re just complaining.’”
Witness after witness said much the same thing: Everything about him encouraged others to be better.
Mike Pellegrino admired him because Kennedy boosted his game.
Pellegrino noticed the new guy at Weightman right off, as you do men who wear suspenders and bowties.
Pellegrino and Kennedy wound up playing golf, training for triathlons and repairing houses together.
Pellegrino stood by him, when Adam took Abigail’s hand.
As Jim McKinney, a tech specialist who found a fellow traveler in Kennedy, said utterly without irony, “He liked retro things.”
As proof, he noted the singular time Kennedy shed his 1920s-teacher look to come to school, instead, dressed as Ben Franklin.
Browning imagined big things ahead.
Kennedy made assistant principal before he was 40, and rose to principal in 2015. All of which added to the devastation from the horror of that Friday morning.
The boss pauses here. There is a sniff. He remembers excitedly calling Kennedy to tell him about his new command. “He said [in Marine Corps monotone], ‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Right away, sir. Thank you, sir. Have a good day, sir.’ … I thought I’d messed it up.”
He hadn’t, of course.
Kennedy, it turned out, absorbed the rigors of responsibility the same whether his view was through the periscope of an Abrams, or across the panorama of a middle school campus.
Only the rules of engagement changed. As did the lives of those who were blessed, in recent years, by that engagement.
Published February 8, 2017