Sunday, February 25, 2007

Weston Kennison

Weston Kennison:

A Life of Endless Possibilities

By: Joseph W. Norman

“It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you tell the story after the game.” It seems necessary to begin the story of Wes Kennison with his “theory of life,” as presented to him on a t-shirt from a former classmate at York Central School. When speaking with Kennison the idea of a story being created and narrated constantly is easy to consider because of the friendly tone and smooth diction he speaks with. One can feel a connection to a mind that is constantly focusing on opening itself up to the possibilities the world has to offer. Also, a unique feeling arises that everything this man does is calculated and true to what he believes in. Philosophies have been formulated over time through many experiences and academic efforts. These ideals are expressed frequently and candidly with the most sincere conviction but often with the most playful attitude.

He describes where he is today as a combination of two different universes; his American life and his Italian life. Unfortunately, he states, “When you live in two places you love, you always miss someplace.” His love affair with Italy began on a study abroad trip he took while studying at SUNY Geneseo, a place where he now teaches. Currently, he educates students primarily in the Humanities as an adjunct English Professor. His passion for the “greatest books ever written,” taught through the Humanities courses at Geneseo, ultimately led him into politics, one of his other areas of interest. He gets to practice the knowledge of his classroom in his role as Town Supervisor of Geneseo. These two key tasks keep him plenty busy and make him an influential figure. In addition, besides his governmental role, he also co-owns an educational company, McClure Productions, with his brother Glen. He declares, “My parents are both workaholics and I inherited that.” In fact, he goes onto describe his philosophy of work, “To me, work has its own value. Work is good in and of itself; it doesn’t need to be compensated and it doesn’t need to lead to something.” He reflects, “It is good to work hard and I like to work hard.”

What seems to be the most curious thing about Wes Kennison is his aforementioned candid expression of his principles. In a self-described, “counter cultural” approach to life, Wes answered the question of where he sees himself in five to ten years with, “I don’t.” In a further look into the answer, he reflected on his thoughts about goal setting. “I know that with the young people we always talk about set your goals, you can do anything, work towards your goals, and achieve them. I think there is a value in that but I think it is extraordinarily overrated.” This is by far, very different from much of the common thought in the society we live in, but this is what makes Wes Kennison who he is. Like all his ideals, he has a further explanation, “When I look at the things in my life that I value the most, not a single one of them I planned for, most of them I didn’t even work for.” He went on further, “They were things that happened to me and I was not too busy to notice them at the time, and not to busy to embrace them.” The power of a progressive attitude such as this, seems uncanny and in its purest form, creative.

This leads to another thought of Kennison’s on the subject of the educational systems and creativity. He states, “We never talk about how you actually get the education done: part of the problem with schools is that they are based upon a factory which mass produces education.” In his mind the students seem to have become production items which come out at the end sent off by somebody labeled as functioning or defective. “The problem with that is nobody is making money with factories anymore and that is how we are still educating people.” At his brother’s and his company, McClure Productions, they focus on bringing creativity back into the picture. Their goal is to bring the arts in to teach other disciplines, such as math or science. “One of the things we say in our company is the new model for education should be the café.” In other words, he says, “It should be a place of hospitality which fosters creativity.” His brother and he believe creativity is something you can teach. “It comes from the joyous intellectual activity of bringing ideas and things together that you do not normally think of coming together.” In their minds, the use of the arts is a way of integrating that thinking. Wes is proud of the work his company does and it has made a dramatic impact on the educational environment for its fourteen years of existence.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is important to ask what inspired Wes Kennison, an individual who has seemingly taken on the role of “man-thinking?” Kennison would say it was his study abroad experience, sophomore year of college at SUNY Geneseo. He studied at the University of Nottingham in England for the entire year, but it was not England which ultimately changed him. Instead, it was the $350, two month hitchhike across the continent of Europe that concluded his time over seas. His travels led him through Belgium, Germany, Italy, Greece, Holland, and a few more, but the experience taught him two things: his philosophy on relationships and his love of Italy. The first came from a complete disconnect from everybody in his life, the result was this idea: “Each one of us is a unique hub to a network of relationships. If you take those relationships away from each one of us there is not a whole lot left.” He was able to appreciate and embrace the value of that thought after his experience. The latter came from a distinct feeling he had when he traveled through Italy. Knowing only eleven words of the native language, he felt more at home there than in any other place he had ever experienced. This has been a love affair that has carried on far past the psychologically exhausting, self proclaimed “personal experiment,” of hitchhiking across Europe.

In terms of Wes Kennison’s career, he describes it like so: “I could do anything at all for a living now because I have already had the best job on the planet, which is taking undergraduates to Italy.” His work teaching a study abroad program in Italy in the summers is what has given him this opportunity. In fact, the college sent Kennison to Italy for two years to teach. He reflects, “The study abroad program for me was a life-changing experience and when you go there with undergraduates, you get to relive it.” One of his favorite moments of every trip is when he takes the students from the bus stop down into the Central Plaza in Sienna, arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. He likes to run down into the plaza and look back at the student’s faces, while they take the site in for the first time. His relationship with Italy has not been limited by the educational experiences; instead, the Italian relationships he developed helped him bring the Barilla pasta plant into Livingston County. The main effort of his was restructuring the meetings to incorporate Italian sensibilities. In fact, the Italian way to do business is far different from the American way. The word “networking” does not have a formal word in Italy because it is simply inherent in everything they do. Relationships are of the utmost importance and all business is conducted around this idea.

In terms of juggling his multiple professions, Kennison reflects on his usual routine of teaching in the morning and working in the Town’s office afterwards. “Teaching is like oxygen to me. If I go to long without doing it, I go a little crazy.” He says, “Doing the teaching job and the political job together is the right combination.” In further describing the unique duo of roles he said, “I get to start out the day with really bright people, reading the greatest books ever written about what I do; then I get to come up here in the afternoon and see if anything that I said in the classroom is actually true, by attempting to apply some of those principles.” This approach has made Kennison a powerful leader in the community because of the freshness he brings to the political arena. It is a calculated, academic approach, with a vigor and creativity which are unprecedented.

Moving away from the professional side, there are many little things about Wes which help round out his deep philosophies and hard working life style. His favorite candy bar is the infamous Payday, not because of its monetary significance, but because he is mortally allergic to chocolate and Reese’s white peanut butter cups merely “come and go in comparison.” His favorite movie is Spinal Tap because he grew up with a brother in a rock band. One of his absolute favorite things to do is a “geeky hobby” of listening to smart people talk. He is fortunate to have colleagues at Geneseo which help him fulfill this unique desire. When they are unavailable, he enjoys watching C-Span because it is a place where “smart people talk and nobody interrupts them.” Also, and most importantly, he loves spending time with his nieces and nephew and his two grandchildren, who are “enormously fun people.”

Three people he would like to meet are Francis of Assisi, Bobby Kennedy, and Susan B. Anthony. The second is because of his uncanny speaking abilities and the latter for her local influence and ability to facilitate national change. One of his pet peeves is “stupid, arrogant people.” This may sound a little harsh, but he finds people like this very frustrating, especially in the political arena. As may be expected, he has a thought process behind this frustration: “Everything is more complicated then we think it is. With every issue before us the humility comes in acknowledging its complexity, especially in the political game.”

To get even further into the life of Wes Kennison, he claims to be a “strange sleeper” and even goes onto declaring that he has “most irregular sleeping patterns on the planet.” There is usually a period in the middle of the night from about one o’clock to about four when he does work. It is usually then that he grades papers because that takes “an enormous amount of concentration.” Afterwards, he will “cat nap” between 4:30 and 6 AM before waking to start the next day.

He has a really bad habit of laughing when he should not because he finds people funny. “When they don’t find themselves funny it can come across as rude,” he claims. There is a reason to his action, however. In fact, he says, “If God wanted to get something done in the world; he wouldn’t have made us to do it. I think we are here to be entertaining.” Another character trait of Kennison’s which is both an advantage and a disadvantage is his uncanny ability to read a room. He says, “If I am in a room full of people, I see every single person, and every single conversation at the same time. I can feel the emotions in a room; I can’t always hear what they are saying, but I know the kind of conversations that they are having.” When in a one on one conversation this can be distracting, but it is a powerful tool for his work in politics.

The number one book to Kennison is Dante’s, The Divine Comedy. It goes above and beyond all others to him. Dante has helped him through his political career as well with the fundamental sin of politics from Canto ten; “do not mistake your world for the world.” Moving on, ironically, one of his favorite quotes is from a title he does not enjoy quite as much, William Shakespeare’s, Hamlet. In Act 1, Scene 5, Hamlet states, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome, there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio then are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, life is all about getting outside of our heads. Whatever we think we know, there is more out there. Kennison states, “We have to welcome the mystery and the unknown like a stranger.” This is a powerful driver to the Kennison way of life.

The story of the many lives of Wes Kennison, can be wrapped up with the piece of knowledge that he learned long ago from current SUNY Geneseo and former York High School cross country coach, Michael Woods. First, he quipped with his usual entertaining tone, “I’m lucky to be alive.” Then he got down to the fundamental piece of information he learned from Woodsie; “You do not take the conventional wisdom of what you can and cannot do seriously.” If Kennison had taken this “wisdom” seriously throughout his life up to this point, he would have left far too many of the gifts life has given him behind. Instead, he remains open and aware to all possibilities because he knows that through the relationships he forges and the endeavors he takes on, a whole world of potential is just waiting around the corner.

Weston Kennison

Town Supervisor, Geneseo

119 Main Street
Geneseo, N.Y. 14454

Phone: 585-243-0722

Professor of English, SUNY Geneseo

Interests: Medieval Studies, Humanities


Brief Academic Bio:

Town of Geneseo Board Bio: