To John Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown University, he offered the rare gift of "psychological security" when Thompson was a boy. To television personality Petey Greene, he was "the only male role model I knew," the man who encouraged him to steer away from crime. To Oliver Thompson, former director of the Boys Clubs of Greater Washington, he was the inspiration for a lifetime of work with the city's youth.
And so these men sat in the blazing sun on the lawn of Georgetown University Sunday to watch affectionatley as James (Jabbo) Kenner, a guiding light in their lives and a beacon to thousands of children who walked through the doors of the Metropolitan Police Boys Clubs, was awarded an honorary degree at Georgetown's 182nd annual commencement.
In tribute to his 53 years of youth work, Georgetown graduates from all over the country gave Kenner a warm standing ovation. Few knew him personally, but they seemed genuinely touched by the degree citation, which acclaimed Kenner as a "splendid athlete and wonderfully caring human being."
Kenner, a former professional prize fighter and a founder and director of Police Boys Club No. 2 has collected many trophies in his 66 years, but he admitted Sunday that the honorary doctorate from Georgetown was the "top of the pile."
The man whose powerful punches as a boxer earned him the nickname "Jabbo" looked almost bashful as he brushed the gold tassle on his mortarboard away from his face and settled his hugh 6-foot-3-inch and 295-pound frame onto the dais. He alternately waved at his friends and family in the front row and laughed as the Georgetown graduates drenched themselves with champagne and gleefully released balloons that floated above the university's towering spires.
Sunday's graduation for 1,802 students was a lighthearted occasion for the most part. The only angry incident occurred during the commencement address delivered by Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Georgetown professor now on leave to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. About 20 graduates stood with their backs to Kirkpatrick during her speech to protest U.S. policies in South Africa and El Salvador.
Kirkpatrick and Kenner were two of eight indivuduals who received honorary degrees. Two were chosen because, like Kenner, they helped mold some of the high school students who attended Georgetown.
Samuel H. Perlmutter, a chemistry teacher at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, and John L. Connelly, a history teacher at Regis High School in New York City, received awards "to remind all of us that we stand on a lot of shoulders," said Father Timothy S. Healy, president of Georgetown.
While the two high school teachers were selected by their former students who now attend Georgetown, the driving force behind Kenner's award was basketbal coach John Thompson.
"I didn't have to argue with anybody once his resume was submitted," said Thompson, one of Kenner's "little buddies" years ago.
Few of Kenner's achievements are documented on paper, but living proof of his accomplishments is not hard to find. Among those whose lives have been shaped by his influence are his 12 foster children, including 12-year-old Woodrow, whom Kenner and his wife Beatrice are about to adopt, and former Georgetown basketball stars Craig Shelton and John Duren. Other proteges include D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who once said, Kenner recalls, "Mr. Jabbo didn't teach me how to box, he taught me to be a man."
Petey Greene credits Kenner with helping him to abandon his youthful criminal activities. "The things he told me at an early age about my leadership abilities enabled me to become a productive citizen, once I decided to straighten up," Greene said.
Kenner moved from his home in McLean to Williamsburg, Va. two years ago, supposedly to retire. But when youth workers in Williamsburg discovered his talents, they instantly recruited him. In Washington last weekend to receive his degree he was back to his old habits, looking for help for a blind Williamsburg youth he has taken under his wing.
"He's the most Christ-like person I've ever met," said John Thompson. "A lot of people preach the gospel. He lives it -- all the time."
After Sunday's commencement, as the Georgetown graduates prepared to enter the nest phase of their lives, Kenner said he was overwhelmed by the standing ovation given, in his own words, to "an old has-been."
But looking over his doctorate of humane letters, Kenner said the degree gives him new impetus to continue his work with young people.
"It's like an old horse getting new corn," he said. "It keeps you going."