Dr. Bradford Kinney set to retire after 40 years at Wilkes

Bill Thomas and Bill Thomas

Bradford Kinney has almost 40 years of grade books in a drawer in his office. He isn’t sure why.

It might have something to do with Kinney, the senior professor of communication studies at Wilkes University, describing himself as “a frustrated historian.” Proof of that can be seen in more than just the history major he dabbled with in college or the interest in genealogy he indulges in his spare time. It is tangible. Kinney’s office is a museum of sorts, filled with relics.

Against the right-hand wall, on top of the same cabinet holding the near four decades worth of grade books, is a framed newspaper from 1968. The front-page story tells of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to not seek re-election. Kinney brought it in to show the students of his Presidential Rhetoric class, but it could easily be just another artifact in the Kinney Museum.

Next to that cabinet is a shelf crammed full of awards. Amusingly, a few appear to be mere Coca-Cola cans topped with gold-plated statuettes of horse rear-ends.  These are “Kinney Awards,” an all-in-good-fun invention of the forensics team Kinney coached for 25 years, a team whose members had taken to dubbing themselves “Kinney’s Kids.”

“When he was coaching debate, you always knew when Wilkes was in the room,” Jane Elmes-Crahall, a longtime peer and one-time forensics rival of Kinney, said. “They were like a second family and they all had a personality you could see they inherited from Kinney; very competitive but also just plain goofy.”

On the right side of the room, more awards line the walls. Buried among them, though, is something arguably even more significant. It’s a framed illustration that once hung in the store of Kinney’s grandfather and the office of his father.

The illustration shows a horse-drawn cart, loaded with miscellaneous items. Brooms, coffee pots, rolls of fabric. A little bit of everything, really. Standing in front of it all is a grinning salesman, peddling his wares.

Beneath the image, a single piece of advice: “You can’t do business from an empty wagon.”

“Kinney has always made sure the communication studies department’s wagon has not been empty,” current department chair Mark Stine said.

Stine pointed to the 1,399 awards Kinney’s nationally ranked forensics team gathered over the years as examples. Kinney was also chair himself once upon a time. At one point or another, he’d advised every co-curricular activity in the department – save for the student-run PR firm Zebra, a relatively recent creation – and he was instrumental in establishing the school’s co-op/internship program. In many ways, Stine said, it was Kinney who laid the groundwork for the entire department.

“Kinney’s always had a vision, and that’s kept the department’s wagon, if you will, overflowing,” Stine said.

At the center of his office museum, surrounded by exhibits telling the story of his life as an educator, Kinney sits. He is small, but his smile is wide. The color of his hair matches that of his two-tone sweater: gray on gray.

It is the fall semester of 2012. Kinney’s last.

The “frustrated historian,” who’s lined the walls with framed and laminated memories, who’s kept in touch with damn near every Kinney’s Kid to ever pass through the halls of Wilkes University, who’s rich past is so intrinsically woven into not just his present but the present of the university itself, is closing down the museum, packing up his hoarded grade books and moving into tomorrow.

“This is my 40th year at Wilkes. I’ve been teaching for a total of 45 years,” Kinney said. “Two years ago, I had open-heart surgery. That sort of thing makes you stop and say ‘Huh, I’m not as young as I used to be.’”

You’d never know it from speaking to him. At 69 years old, Kinney displays the exuberance and animation of an excitable teenager first discovering what makes him tick. He talks with his hands, moving around in quick, bird-like movements. He makes jokes at his own expense and laughs heartily. Sometimes, with a chuckle, he’ll slap or grab his desk in an act of tactile punctuation.

When he does, the whole room shakes. Just a little. As if the walls themselves can’t stand as strong as this man’s personality.

“This retirement is a bittersweet retirement. Bitter in the sense that I’m giving up something that I truly, truly, truly enjoy. Teaching is really something I just enjoy immensely. I don’t mind coming to work. I expend a lot of energy in the classroom because it’s something I enjoy. So that’s bitter. But it’s sweet in the sense that I’m at a point in my life when I need to spend some time with my grandchildren and my wife, do some traveling, do some research,” Kinney said.

“I reflect back many times on the things I’ve seen at Wilkes. I’ve had dreams and I’ve seen them both fulfilled and not fulfilled. I’ve seen the world turned over numerous times. I just hope, down the pike, somebody will say ‘Brad Kinney did a good job. He tried his best. He didn’t have all the successes in the world and he didn’t have all the failures in the world, but he tried. Now, I want to try. I can better him.’ If someone can come out of what I’ve taught and be a teacher and be a better one than I am, that’s neat. I would like that.”

On a small table in the farthest left-hand corner of the soon-to-be-shuttered Kinney Museum, almost hidden amongst the bric-a-brac autobiography that is Kinney’s office, are some of the only allowances of modern technology the room proffers: a flat-screen desktop computer and a slender laptop.

Directly across, in the right-hand corner, as if in retort to the computers’ existence, sits an old Panasonic television set, the bulky kind based on obsolete cathode-ray tube tech. Beside it rests an equally outdated stereo and a vinyl record player.

Despite being outnumbered by antiques to the point of feeling anachronistic, the two computers in Kinney’s office boast more power and promise than just about anything else in the room. It is the power and promise of the future itself.

“I’ll always remember what Johnny Carson said when he retired from TV. He said ‘The best time to retire is when they’re still laughing.’ In other words, quit while you’re ahead and go out on your own terms. The more I thought about it, I just thought I’m not getting any younger. There are too many faculty members that hang on and hang on and hang on and become stale. With the world changing so much, you need to get that energy, that young blood. It’s time to inject some new blood.”