Robert J. Kingston: A Tribute

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Robert Kingston, a leading member of the Kettering Foundation family for more than 35 years, passed away August 20 in Long Island, New York. A celebration of his life will be scheduled in October.

A Brit, Bob grew up in London, witnessed the Blitz during World War II, earned a “first” at Oxford, came to the United States to teach English at the University of Michigan, and later at Vassar College. He also taught at Brooklyn College, then at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where he became a professor of English.  

Later, he became deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, president of the College Board, executive director of Public Agenda, and beginning in 1981, a senior associate at the Kettering Foundation.

Memories of Bob’s life have come rolling in to the foundation. Here are several:

“Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.

Bob Kingston and Diane Eisenberg brought the riches from the American Issues Forum to the National Issues Forums like Marco Polo brought the riches of China to the Western World. And like Marco, Bob brought more treasures from his other ‘travels.’ He forged a solid and lasting relationship between Kettering and Public Agenda when, as a loaned executive, he served as Public Agenda’s chief executive. Bob turned the Kettering Review into a substantial journal. Stimulated by what the contributors to the Review have written, the foundation has developed an understanding of democracy that goes beyond the conventional, narrow notion that democracy is reducible to the contested elections that produce representative governments.

While Bob was making these contributions, he was one of the leading actors in our troupe of players on the world’s political stage, a stage that we now recognize as a multinational network.” —David Mathews

“It’s hard to put into words how important Bob Kingston was to me. He was like family, my favorite uncle. We worked together for 35 years. Before Bob took over Public Agenda, we—Jean Johnson, Keith Melville, and I—were limping along with no real structure or stature. But under Bob’s leadership and working closely with Kettering and NIF, Public Agenda took flight and became the internationally renowned organization it is today.

Bob’s the only person I’ve ever known who was helplessly interested in just about everything. A conversation with Bob might range from why the British turned out Churchill after World War II, to the merits of Lear vs. Hamlet, to the Oakland Raiders, his favorite team, to his time in Germany during the Berlin Airlift, to his daughters and grandchildren and especially Carol, who he loved so much.

Bob was a role model, mentor, a wise and treasured friend. I miss him very much.” —John Doble (In a post on the foundation’s Facebook page August 30, John wrote, “I will miss Bob every day of my life.”)

“It could have been a dreary experience, trudging from meeting to meeting seeking support for a citizen engagement campaign. ‘Citizen engagement’ wasn’t even a term of art back then. Bob and I, along with Kate Sheaffer, were enlisting partners for a ‘citizens’ choice campaign’ called HealthVote ‘82. Armed with Bob’s passion for democracy and his wondrous presence, we gained support from all three network TV affiliates, the Des Moines Register, and contributions from businesses like Bankers Trust and Pioneer Hi-Bred. And we ended each day over wine and dinner at the Savery Hotel. Bob at his brilliant, convivial best!

I have to say that if the job is going from office to office, four or five visits in a day, to persuade people to participate in community discussion of health care, you couldn’t have a better partner than Bob. And of course Bob’s dapper presentation and the accent gave us some bonus points.

In the last few days, I have been thinking about the many times Bob read to us at the Kettering Christmas party. I remember Bob’s brilliant readings from The Wind and the Willows and A Child’s Christmas in Wales. But to me, the most wondrous of all was the time Bob read the words to ‘Silent Night’ to us. I had heard and sung those words hundreds of times before, but when Bob read them that night, they were new to me. Bob gave them a beauty and simplicity I hadn’t even imagined before.” —Jean Johnson

“Bob hired me when I was 23 years old for my first full-time job, which was at Public Agenda, after graduate school and the Mondale campaign. Since then, he was one of the few constant forces in my life. There’s no one story that sticks in my mind about Bob; rather, when I think about him, what immediately floods me was his keen and contagious sense of enthusiasm – for ideas, for debate, for writing, for living. His enthusiasm is something I will cherish and carry forever.” —Rich Harwood

“People will definitely recall the enormous professional contributions Bob made to our work and our lives, but as much I will always remember the late evening conversations with small gatherings of folks after our meetings. I met Bob when he was directing the American Issues Forum project through the National Endowment for the Humanities. He had a mighty pen and heart. Our Kettering Family has lost a wise and worthy gentleman. May his wisdom continue to guide us.” —Margaret Holt

“One of the great gifts of my life has been the pleasure of doing work that is worth doing with colleagues and friends over the past 35 years. Bob and I, and several others, worked together all these years. In the first 15 years, we produced something like 50 issue books and since then we worked together on countless other projects.  

Bob was such an important part of the project as architect, passionate critic, and commentator, with his green pen, his marginal comments, and his memos. Our shared dream and purpose over the years was to create and encourage something that’s clearly missing in the nation’s public life: real public deliberation about real public issues. Bob and his green pen, his intelligence, and his passionate commitment to democratic life were at the center of this work. It was a great pleasure to work with him as a colleague and friend.” —Keith Melville

“In the fall of 1988, when I was doing freelance work in Washington, DC, a friend called me at my row house in Adams Morgan to say that I was about to get a call from a Bob Kingston who was looking for a writer to work with something called the Kettering Foundation on something about democracy.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, sitting on the wooden staircase, I got a call from this very distinguished gentleman, speaking with a British lilt, with a tad of wry irony, about democracy and the foundation’s work—which all seemed rather vague but well-meaning—and would I meet him the next Tuesday, he asked, at the foundation’s Washington office?

I don’t really remember what he said at that Tuesday meeting but I distinctly remember him piling a stack of Kettering Reviews in my arms on the way out. A few days later I was flown to Dayton to meet with Dr. Mathews, who took me on a tour of the foundation and then at the end of the day gave me an assignment to revise a speech of his for publication.

I seemed to be interviewing for something, but I had no idea what, nor did I know that this odd new-not-really-a-job job would be the most significant one of my entire life, that it would involve working out ideas with these people over many long meetings that I would almost always find fascinating, spirited debates over drinks and dinner about politics and public life, frequent ‘memo wars’ about things like virtue and purpose, and a far flung network of intellectuals and democratic practitioners all over the world.

A couple of years later, the lovely poet who had been Bob Kingston’s associate editor for the Review, Judd Jerome, passed away. And then Bob asked me if I’d like the job. Little did I know that this would be a role that I’d keep for the next 23 years, working with Bob issue by issue to say something that would help the foundation both with its own work and with its intellectual outreach. All the while I hoped that I’d never get promoted—for a promotion could only arise if something bad happened to Bob.

So I was not at all happy when two years ago, as Bob’s health began to fail, that I was promoted to coeditor. And now with his loss I find it surreal to be the sole editor. Yet, now when I take my pen to paper to mercilessly edit something for the Review, I mimic the curving lines he’d use to excise whole paragraphs; I try to link together the remaining words into the more concise little essay that the piece was waiting to become under Bob’s hand; I hope to carry on a bit of his brilliance.” — Noëlle McAfee

“I am so appreciative of all the wisdom I have gleaned from Bob over the years. He has been an important influence on my life—greatly enhancing my writing, thinking and strategic skills. And perhaps most importantly I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me to work with him to bring the American Issues Forum to fruition all over the country, including Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Those were surely heady days, indeed! My thanks to Bob for all he has contributed to the Kettering Foundation and to me personally.” —Diane Eisenberg

“I have only fond memories of Bob, from NEH, from the Kettering Foundation, and from personal contact. What a joy to be with him as we developed strategies and traveled the country. Always literate, upbeat, humorous, and always positive. He will be missed.” —Len Oliver

“First Hal Saunders and now Bob Kingston. Two great losses for KF this year and two of my favorite people in the KF family. I didn’t work closely with Bob as I did for Hal, but I enjoyed his humor, intelligence, and eloquence, and looked forward to getting his insight whenever the opportunity presented itself. As David says, he is irreplaceable and will be sorely missed.” —Jim Voorhees

“I am saddened to learn that Bob Kingston has passed away. I can add nothing to the public record of Bob’s work with the Foundation and his indispensable contribution to its growth and maturation. What I can say is that Bob was a colleague for whom I had deep respect, not only for his fine intellect but also for his integrity, loyalty, and commitment to the cause of deliberative democracy.

During our brief time together at KF, I’m not sure who felt more provoked—and more gratified—by our running ‘duel de memos’—he or I. (Surely, it was I.) It was impossible for me not to respect, admire, and even love someone whose passion for explication—and for having the last word—was as strong as my own.

Bob was a fine human being, with a deep concern for humanity and a deeper regard for individual persons, with all their foibles, flaws, and failings. He meant a lot to me, and I will remember him the remainder of my days as a man worthy of an encomium more eloquent than any I could ever compose.” —Michael Briand

Click here to read the obituary.