James W. (Jabbo) Kenner has meant many things to many different people. To young black men growing up in the 1950s and '60s, he was an important male role model, coach, counselor and surrogate father. To the needy or underprivileged of all races, he supplied clothing, food or sometimes shelter. To the elderly, he supplied entertainment or transportation to church services.
If the 66-year-old Kenner sounds like a one-man evangel for good will, he is.
For 47 years, Kenner brought his mission of benevolence to people all over the Washington area. He has had an impact upon fathers, sons and their sons. This huge (6-feet-2, 260 lbs.) but gentle man has left his mark on numerous Washingtonians.
"I first met Jabbo when I was growing up in Southwest many, many years ago," recalled Oliver Thompson, assistant director of personnel at the University of the District of Columbia. "Here was this big man who could probably crush someone in his hands. But he was so gentle. A lot of us were wild, but he had a special way of taming or rechanneling that wildness. . . . I guess you could say he quieted the beast in a lot of us."
At that time, Kenner was a boxing coach at No. 2 Police Boys Club. Thompson says he observed the special way Kenner handled youngsters and it inspired him to emulate him.
"I watched this man work his magic with so many young guys who no one else could handle," said Thompson, who also directs of the Lamond-Riggs youth athletic program in Northeast Washington.
Others influenced by Kenner include Washington TV and Radio talk show host Petey Green, D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy, singer Marvin Gaye, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Georgetown head basketball coach John Thompson.
Kenner, born and raised in Georgetown on 28th Street NW, attended Armstrong High School and later took counseling courses at Howard and Catholic universities. He says that coming from a large family inspired him to work with people.
"We didn't have much when we were coming up, but we were a close family unit," said Kenner. "Even at an early age, I knew that I was put here to help people."
Kenner's initial involvement with youth came in 1934 when he helped form what is now the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs of Washington. At that time, he said, there was a boys club already in existence, but it was for whites only.
"Dr. E. B. Henderson and some other prominent Negroes got together and went to talk to the District commission about their concern for having a club for Negro kids," said Kenner. "After some discussion, they were awarded a building on 12th and U streets NW. They told me to set up the boxing ring and that's how the club got started." There are now 10 clubs that serve thousands of youngsters all over the Washington area.
After a three-year bout with tuberculosis, Kenner was forced to retire from boxing. In 1950, he married Beatrice Davidson and was later named general supervisor of the boys clubs. It was then that he began to help the needy and the elderly. Since then, hundreds of Washingtonians have received baskets of food or clothing gathered by Kenner and his wife, who he says is a great inspiration to him.
"We're like a team," said Kenner. "I've seen her sit up many hours at night and making clothes or baking cakes for people. We just can't sleep at night if someone we know is hungry or needs some clothing."
The Kenners have adopted or fostered nine children over the years. They now have one foster child, Antonio Robinson, 22, and one adopted child, Woodrow William Kenner, who is 13 and has been with the Kenners since he was 22 months old.
After nearly half a century of service with the boys clubs, the D.C. Roving Leaders Program and various community organizations, Kenner moved to Williamsburg three years ago to "retire." It was short-lived. In a matter of days, he was out in the Williamsburg community finding people to help.
"I take the blame for that," Beatrice Kenner admits. "When I got down here, I opened my big mouth telling people about Jab and all the things he has done to help people. . . . Before long, Jab was unretired and out looking for people to help."
Kenner is now involved with the Williamsburg-Jamestown Commission for Action, helping amputees, collecting money to send a blind man to college and distributing food baskets to the needy. Last week, a friend gave him $20,000 worth of clothes that he distributed to several needy families.
"Jabbo had a definite influence on me when I was coming up," said Petey Green, a director at the United Planning Organization. "He told me that I would never be an athlete, so I should concentrate on developing my leadership qualities. I have all the respect in the world for the man."
John Thompson is another Kenner protege' with fond memories.
"Jabbo is one of the most unusual people you will ever meet," said Thompson, who came under Kenner's guidance at No. 2 Boys Club. "He is so sincere and so consoling. Whenever you had a problem, he was there and seemed to have a way of finding a solution."
Kenner was honored for his work in grand fashion last summer when Georgetown University awarded him an honorary doctorate at its commencement exercises.
"The man is such a good human being and he has done so much for so many people that something like that was way overdue," Green said. "All of the old gang that came up under Jab was there, and we all cried."