Growing up poor in a coal mine camp in southern West Virginia, Brent L. Kendrick dreamed about becoming a college professor.
And, while that dream may have been deferred along the way, at 72, the English professor shows no signs of slowing down.
Professor Kendrick recently served as an opening night speaker at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, an event that annually attracts 5,000-7,000 people to Brattleboro, Vt. He was there to speak about Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, about whom he is an expert.
Dr. Kendrick’s book, The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, was published in 1985, and is considered the authoritative work on the author who lived from 1852 to 1930.
“You never know when an idea is about to be born in a classroom,” says Dr. Kendrick, reminiscing about a survey of American literary realism course he was taking as a grad student at the University of South Carolina.
The first Freeman short story he was assigned was A Humble Romance.
“I fell in love with it, and I’ve been in love with her fiction and her life since then,” Dr. Kendrick says. “She’s a powerful writer, often identified with New England local color, but it goes far beyond that. She was a popstar in her day. Every day, newspapers nationwide covered her. At the turn of the century, she and Mark Twain were America’s most-beloved writers.”
Another woman who has greatly influenced the professor’s life is his late mother, who was a fundamentalist minister – a pioneer for her gender during that time, the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“I always credit her with my love of language,” Dr. Kendrick says. “She spoke absolutely flawless English and was very charismatic in the pulpit. She always maintained that she was slain in the spirit. She was just an incredibly moving minister.”
Despite lacking much formal education, his mother developed her perfect grammar and speaking ability from multiple readings of the King James Bible.
The coal mining camp in which he was raised was a true melting pot, according to Dr. Kendrick. Hungarians, Italians, Jewish, Greek and Hispanic families were “all brought together by poverty” during a time when segregation was common practice.
“My mother was always adamant that regardless of who came to our house, they always came in the front door, and she always made a place for them at the table,” says Dr. Kendrick, the youngest of six children.
Besides his home, school was a special place for him.
“I did have the good fortune all throughout my educational experience of having really wonderful teachers as role models,” says Dr. Kendrick. “They were, without a doubt, my best friends growing up, from high school all the way through even graduate school. I thought they lived the good life and I wanted that.”
It was in primary school that he discovered a passion for books.
“From the time I was a third-grader I fell in love with literature, with Robert Frost poetry,” Dr. Kendrick says. “I got it in my head that I wanted to be a college professor. Looking back, I marvel that I as a third-grader in a very rural part of West Virginia had even thought about being a college professor. I believed fully that words could change people, and I thought it was the only thing that really mattered.”
Dr. Kendrick recognized his teachers’ care and compassion for their students, as well as their desire to see them succeed.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree in English from Alderson Broaddus College (now University) in Philippi, W.Va. The college required its students to have two off-campus experiences, and one of Dr. Kendrick’s was at the Health, Education and Welfare Office in Washington, D.C.
A hiring freeze meant the job he was expected to get wouldn’t be possible, so his supervisor recommended he go to the Library of Congress a few blocks away. Dr Kendrick walked in with his resume and was given an on-the-spot interview.
He was hired as an editor for the machine-readable cataloging project at the Library of Congress, and then became an editor at the National Union Catalog.
By the time Professor Kendrick had his doctorate in English, it was the late 1970s, and the market was saturated with English PhDs. Because one teaching offer paid less than he’d made at the Library of Congress, he decided to return to the library job.
“I fell in love with what I was doing,” he says. “The Library of Congress is an incredible institution.”
By the time Dr. Kendrick had spent 25 years with the Library and was eligible for early retirement, he was already spending his weekends in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
“I had the really good fortune of stopping by Lord Fairfax one day,” he recalls. “I knew I would stay. I fell in love with Lord Fairfax and I love the Shenandoah Valley and my home up in the mountains.”
Professor Kendrick especially values the family atmosphere at LFCC. And, he identifies with so many of the students.
“Many of them, like me, are first-generation college students, and I can understand the challenges that they face and the stress that they feel,” he says.
After more than 20 years at LFCC, “the ‘R’ word” (retirement) isn’t in his vocabulary, according to Professor Kendrick.
“I love teaching,” he says. “The most recent shot of adrenaline for me is all my classes are open educational resources, so my students don’t have to buy textbooks. My students love it, and I love it.”
Aside from the cost savings, the classes are more alive when literature is projected on a big screen for students to read aloud.
“With the textbooks, it’s too easy for students to sit there and hide,” Professor Kendrick explains. “I always have great interactions in class now. It’s an exchange of ideas. I get my best ideas from my students.”
It was one of his own graduate school professors who impressed him by leading a three-hour seminar without any notes. The students would be spellbound by the topics.
“That’s how I teach – I have no notes,” Dr. Kendrick says. “My classroom becomes a theater and my students the audience.”
Literature brings an added richness to life, Professor Kendrick says.
“I think there’s a beauty to literature because it takes us places we can’t go otherwise,” he says. “It allows us to experience emotions that we don’t experience all the time. I think reading literature makes us more human. I can’t imagine a day without reading something.”
Another love of his is research.
“It’s gratifying to examine materials that other people have not seen,” says Dr. Kendrick.
He continues to research Freeman. Thanks to technological advances, Dr. Kendrick is working on a new edition to his work nearly 35 years after his original was published. He says he is finding more and more of Freeman’s letters online.
Dr. Kendrick plans to combine the letters with a biography of Freeman to create a two-volume work. The tentative title uses Freeman’s nickname, Dolly – Dolly: Life and Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
“I’m really writing the book not just to expand the letters, but to capture that personal celebrity side of her, which I think is incredibly important,” Dr. Kendrick explains.