A trailblazer who developed “a monument to education” downtown isn’t saying goodbye. She’s saying godspeed.
Surrounded by hundreds of friends, family and colleagues, outgoing Gateway Community College President Dorsey “Dr. K” Kendrick made that announcement Wednesday night at a packed celebration of her 18-year tenure and retirement next week.
Held at Anthony’s Ocean View in Morris Cove, the event doubled as a chance to bring attention to the Dorsey L. Kendrick Access To Success endowment fund, to which attendees had the option of donating. Money raised for that fund Wednesday night will go toward student scholarships. That includes $500 from the Theta Epsilon Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Inc., a black sorority.
Throughout the evening, Kendrick was praised for her groundbreaking efforts to revitalize access to higher education in New Haven. Her tenure included cultivating the college’s special education, nursing, adult education and high school crossover programs and moving Gateway’s campus to downtown from Long Wharf.
A lineup of 20 speakers — none of whom stayed within a suggested two-minute limit, and a few of whom had prerecorded their messages by video — focused not only on Kendrick’s accomplishments, but on the spirit with which she had worked.
Mayor Toni Harp recalled Kendrick’s fight to institute the nursing program, and the verve with which Kendrick went head-to-head with Connecticut legislators, then-governor John Rowland, and “the nursing profession itself, frankly” before the program began in 2002. It has since graduated almost 1,000 nurses.
Others painted a portrait of a woman who was direct but kind, unyielding yet candid and compassionate. Tunxis Community College President Cathryn Addy told attendees she knew Kendrick was special when she’d said, mid-interview for her position at Gateway, that she would “have a little come-to-Jesus meeting and get things settled” if faced with a difficult situation. Chamber of Commerce President Tony Rescigno lauded Kendrick as an educator “with vision focused like a laser beam,” for whom the world stopped when she saw a student in need. And Community Foundation Director Will Ginsberg thanked her for her work as a servant to the city, and changemaker in the community.
“You changed the way New Haven thinks of itself,” he said. “You have elevated education for all in this community.”
So did former Gateway alum and former student body president Abdur Wali (pictured). A native New Havener, Wali had grown up walking past Gateway Community College. “I would see the big blue sign saying GCC, and I would dream about being on that terrace,” he recalled.
Wali didn’t know that Kendrick’s office was up there, or that she was there at all. That changed his first year, when he attended an event where she was speaking, and she instantly became “Dr. K” to him. She issued a call to action that stirred something in him, he said — an urge to push himself even harder academically. He became involved in student government, meeting with Kendrick weekly. When Wali asked her to add a letter to the Black Student Association time capsule, she used it as an opportunity to laud students in the association and to encourage them to use “hope, care, hard work and tenacity” in both their studies and their lives.
“There were many times after speaking with her I teared up and cried a little bit,” Wali said, speaking to Kendrick from across the ballroom. “In my mind and in my heart, I consider myself her and Mr. Kendrick’s adopted son ... you have lit the path, lightened the load, and provided a shining example for all of us to follow.”
When Kendrick rose to speak at the end of the evening, she kept her remarks brief, her voice wavering every few sentences as she choked back tears.
“This is hard, because it is bittersweet,” she began. She then invoked Luke 12:48 (“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”). “I really believe that I have an obligation to do as much as I can to make my little corner of the world the best that I have to give,” she said.
“I know that my work has not been in vain,” she continued, pointing to Gateway’s most recent class of over 1,200 students. “To think that I may have made a difference for even one student makes the journey so much sweeter…. I want to thank God for giving me the life that I have, so that I could do the work that I did on behalf of the citizens of this community and for the state. I am grateful to have been of service.”
“I shall not say goodbye tonight, rather godspeed,” she added. “May the best that life has to offer come to each and every one of you. Thank you for being a part of my life, my vision, my hopes and dreams and aspirations for the last 18 years. I am humbled to have been able to serve.”
Asked how he is planning to handle the transition, incoming Gateway Paul Broadie said that the end of Kendrick’s tenure marks “tremendous opportunity for both Housatonic and Gateway.” (He’ll be running both community college branches.) Broadie credited Kendrick with building “a strong foundation” for her successors and that he looks forward to relying on Gateway’s “exceptional faculty, staff and administration.”