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A Tribute to Homer Kemp Ph.D

By Dr Michael “Birdie” Birdwell

Professor Homer Kemp died peacefully at his home near Ringgold, Georgia, Saturday evening, March 29, 2020. A native of Obion County, Tennessee, Kemp earned his baccalaureate from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1966. He studied under his beloved mentor Richard Beale Davis at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he received his doctorate in American Literature. Kemp, known for his ability as a storyteller, was a favorite among students for decades. Anecdotes abound about how much he loathed chalk, and his precise enunciation of words for dramatic effect.

Dedicated to academic excellence, Kemp provided courageous leadership across the campus and beyond. He served as a member of the Faculty Senate and presided as its president for a term. Kemp chaired accreditation committees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, was the last editor of the Tech Journal, was interim chair of the Department of Sociology, and was chair of the English Department at the time of his retirement in 2014. He was a founding member of the Breakfast Rotary Club and believed wholeheartedly in the Rotary motto of “Service above self.” He enjoyed working Boys State each year and hanging out with two of his best friends, Dr. Dave Narrie and former Tech President Angelo Volpe.

With Calvin Dickinson, Kemp created the Upper Cumberland Humanities and Social Sciences Institute dedicated to the academic investigation of the Appalachian regions in Kentucky and Tennessee. Kemp and Dickinson employed students to conduct architectural surveys across the region; that research led to numerous properties, including Henderson Hall, being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The architectural surveys continue to be beneficial to researchers. Kemp and Dickinson gave a number of students opportunities to do hands-on research that suited them well long after they left the university.
The Upper Cumberland Institute hosted a number of successful Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) programs at Tennessee State Parks and at historic hotels in Red Boiling Springs. Those featured a week-long immersive experience where participants interacted with scholars from a wide variety of disciplines (e.g. Biology, Chemistry, Education, English, Geology, Geography, History, Theatre, etc.) both in classroom settings and on field trips.

Kemp worked with WCTE-TV on one of its first in-depth documentaries– The Wilder-Davidson Story: The End of an Era. Co-produced with Steve Boots, the four-part investigation produced over 100 hours of oral history interviews now available to scholars at the Tech Archives. That experience led Kemp, Dickinson and student researchers to conduct a series of oral history interviews that captured additional stories from the region that continue to inform scholars.

Kemp had a terrific sense of humor and loved to laugh. He enjoyed interacting with faculty, staff and students. Homer was a true character and loved being on stage in local stage productions such as Of Mice and Men directed by one his favorite former students Steve Gwilt. He cherished road trips across the country with his wife, Mary Tanner, trekking about the Upper Cumberland with friends, and annual fishing trips in Canada. He will truly be missed.