When Jim Kennedy, director of admission and enrollment, retires in August, he will be wrapping up not one, but two Baylor careers that bookend an impressive professional career in advertising, public relations, strategic planning, and civic leadership.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Kennedy first came to Baylor in 1974, fresh from graduating from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He had been searching for teaching positions at schools when his brother Dan, who was teaching math at Baylor, alerted him to an opening in the English department.
Kennedy flew to Chattanooga for the interview and landed the job. “One of my favorite parts of the whole process was that the headmaster, Herb Barks, interviewed me behind the bleachers during the Baylor-McCallie baseball game,” he laughs. “I think he was more tuned in to the game than what I was saying, but it worked out.”
Herb Barks interviewed me behind the bleachers during the Baylor-McCallie baseball game. I think he was more tuned in to the game than what I was saying, but it worked out.
Kennedy began as an English teacher and, in his second year, was given leadership of the Baylor drama department. The first production he directed was Damn Yankees, which he called a legacy moment. “It was the first musical that had been done at Baylor in some time and was enormously successful,” he says. “Dr. Barks had a wild idea that more people would like to see it, so we rented out the Tivoli Theatre downtown for one more show. We performed for about 1,100 people.”
Like his brother, Kennedy jumped in the deep end at Baylor; he served as a dorm parent on the second floor of Lupton Hall and coached B-team soccer with legendary teacher Bill Cushman ’59. He and Dan also led students on the Great Hamburger Hunt of Baylor lore, hitting all the burger joints in town each year. Kennedy left Baylor’s faculty in 1977.
It is no exaggeration to say that Kennedy played an important part in the renaissance of downtown Chattanooga that included the creation of the beautiful riverfront area. After a couple of years working for Coca-Cola in Houston, Texas, Kennedy returned to the Scenic City where he served nine years as creative director for the Miller-Reid advertising company. He worked with the River City Company for three years, ran the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau for six years, directed the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce for three years, and then opened and managed a local consulting firm for ten years, helping companies and non-profit organizations with strategic planning.
I was never too far removed from Baylor. I knew the school, I loved the school, I was sure I could succeed at selling and promoting the school.
There seems to be no role for which Kennedy has not been suited (he is also a leader in the Chattanooga Little Theater and most recently performed as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird). “My liberal arts education prepared me for a lot of those different positions,” he explains. “They each had their own different kinds of challenges, where you had to see the ‘big picture,’ so I was prepared to manage a lot of different things.”
Kennedy returned to Baylor in 2011 as the director of admission, another new role. “I had worn several hats at Baylor during my first stint – dorm parent, coach, teacher – and now I was a Baylor parent (to Danny ’09, Jake ’11, and Kristopher ’19), so I had another view from that side,” he explains. “Plus, we ate dinner every weekend with Dan who was still there, and I was married to Barbara (director of external affairs) who had worked at Baylor for some time. So, I was never too far removed from Baylor. I knew the school, I loved the school, I was sure I could succeed at selling and promoting the school.”
During his nine years at the helm, Kennedy instituted many changes including parent presentations and the now famous Big Red Quest, a fun, challenging scavenger hunt on campus for prospective sixth graders. Baylor saw the largest one-year enrollment in its history under his direction, and his efforts are largely responsible for the valuable diverse, multicultural makeup of the Baylor boarding population.
“I think we established a philosophy in the department of real customer service and making sure we were communicating responsively with parents,” Kennedy says proudly. “I think we do a good job of crafting presentations to parents and students that are relevant and engaging. I think a lot of that effort helped sell Baylor in a way that felt a little more accessible.”
Baylor really is a great institution. It’s been around for a long time for a reason, and I think it’s because we know how to change with the times and make the school relevant and exciting. To be able to work with the people at Baylor is just amazing—to say nothing about the fact that it’s been such an important part of the Kennedy family. I really did enjoy every day here.
Kennedy has faced challenges in the position but none bigger than the ones currently presented by a campus closed due to the pandemic. He remains optimistic despite the situation. “The quality of the school will be here after COVID goes away, and the magnitude of the market will be the same after COVID goes away, even though it will take some time to recover financially. I think Baylor is well positioned to thrive coming out of this crisis.”
Kennedy is quick to say his decision to retire was made long before the COVID-19 restrictions began, but adds that he is saddened about the situation. “I would hope, since I’m retiring in August, that I have a chance to see some of the kids and say goodbye to them in a meaningful way. It’s going to break my heart if I never see some of the Chinese kids that I nurtured from the first interview. I always love graduation with the families there, rekindling some of those relationships,” Kennedy says. “But I don’t take responsibility for COVID, and I won’t take the credit for the work that the admission department will do to recover from it. I’m sure they will.”
“What an opportunity it has been to work at Baylor,” Kennedy concluded. “It really is a great institution. It’s been around for a long time for a reason, and I think it’s because we know how to change with the times and make the school relevant and exciting. To be able to work with the people at Baylor is just amazing—to say nothing about the fact that it’s been such an important part of the Kennedy family. I really did enjoy every day here.”