By Joey Kennedy
In the mid-1980s, I had the pleasure to work with Jo Ellen O’Hara, the longtime food writer and editor at The Birmingham News. Jo Ellen recounted recently that when I first introduced myself to her, I said, “Hello. I’m Joey Kennedy, and I’m a Republican.”
I don’t remember the moment, but it sounds like something I might have said. I was a Republican then. Not long before, I had come to The News from The Anniston Star, a decidedly left-leaning newspaper. I was known as The Star’s “token Republican.” Before joining The Star’s sports staff, I had worked as press secretary for Republican candidate Guy Hunt’s first run for governor. Yeah, the unsuccessful one.
I am not a Republican today. I’m no Democrat, either. I leave the political parties to others. Over the years, as I studied the issues, regained my faith, lived and observed life, my views evolved. I spent long hours discussing life in Birmingham with my wise neighbor Odessa Woolfolk, and my mind began to open.
I am very curious, a good trait I think for a columnist.
Someone once told me that if you aren’t changing, you’re the same person now that you’ll be the rest of your life. That doesn’t sound like much fun to me. I worked alongside great journalists and writers—Ron Casey, Harold Jackson, Terri Troncale, Bob Blalock, Eddie Lard, Robin DeMonia and, yes, Jo Ellen O’Hara, whose knowledge of Birmingham’s history and Birmingham’s people is deep—and I learned that framing the issues of the day, any issue really, in absolutes is not how I wanted to think. Or write.
The opportunity to write for B-Metro is a gift. I love telling stories, and this won’t be a political column as much as I hope it’s a column for readers to enjoy spending a little time with, whether they agree or disagree. I have close friends who have different views, and I’m good with that, as are they.
I grew up in southern Louisiana, so I find a nice, spicy gumbo of thought comfortably filling.
But let me briefly reveal how some of my views evolved. Veronica, my wife of 35 Februaries, and I helped take care of each of our parents as they entered their sunset years. Veronica’s father, a World War II veteran, always told me he was a cook—yet he came home from Europe with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. This war-hero cook was a wise man who didn’t talk about the horrors he witnessed. He died in 1986 from emphysema. His life, his quiet example of perseverance, gave me a deep respect for not only veterans from the Greatest Generation but all military veterans. And since, I also became convicted that we make war too easily these days.
At about 60 years old, my mother was diagnosed with two primary cancers, lung cancer and breast cancer. The breast cancer later metastasized into bone cancer. She died at her home at 63 years old. She died far into hospital-related debt. She did not have health insurance, which insurance companies refused to sell her because of her “pre-existing condition.” People often ask me what I think about the Affordable Care Act. Not much, but better than nothing. My mother’s terrible experience left me supporting single-payer, universal health care for all, and I still do.
My mother-in-law had a stroke in 1991. She lived with us for most of the next decade, through other strokes and heart surgeries, and never regained the ability to speak clearly. A religious fundamentalist, she hated it that Veronica and I were, of all things, Baptists. She believed that the tornado that struck that Methodist church near Piedmont on a Sunday morning in 1994, killing 20 worshipers and injuring more than 90, was sent by God. She died in 2000 of heart failure. Her brand of faith, and it was a strong, fear-God’s-wrath faith, led me more than ever to cling tightly to amazing grace, to never judge another by harsh religious terms, whatever religion.
My father was an alcoholic who was shot in the center of his chest by this third wife (not my mother). She used a .38 revolver, the bullet clipping his sternum, one lung and exiting under his arm. He survived, and lived with us for a while before returning to south Louisiana, where he died of pneumonia in 2009. I’m still sorting out the lessons of this father who abandoned his family because of drink.
All of us are informed by who we are, by where we come from, by what our lives present us. We are informed by success and failure. By experience and education. By our faith, our partners, and our families, blood and otherwise.
It is a curious life, indeed.
A reader, after seeing the announcement that I would write a column for B-Metro, said I “might want to leave liberal commentary at home.” Oh, I’ve been called a liberal (though a prominent businessperson in Birmingham once told me if I lived in any other state, I’d just be a moderate). I prefer to think of myself as simply curious.
So, hello. I’m Joey Kennedy, a curious columnist.