Longtime Clinton mayor A.E. Kennedy Jr., a man who served the city for nearly half a century and left an indelible mark on the community, passed away Wednesday at the age of 90.
Aaron Emsley Kennedy Jr. was laid to rest in a Friday graveside service, and friends and colleagues remembered the man who served the city for so long and spent his life forging the city forward to success — it was a life of service so rich that awards and buildings are now named after him, the example which many seek to follow.
Kennedy served the City of Clinton for 44 years, holding the position of mayor for 28 years, from 1973 to 2001. Prior to that, he served on the Clinton City Council for 16 years, from 1957-1973, holding the title of mayor pro tem numerous times while on the Council.
Former city manager Tommy Combs, who served 19 of his 20 years at the position with Kennedy, said there was never a better mayor.
“He was probably one of the best mayors I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve probably worked with 15 to 20 mayors,” said Combs, who served as the city’s manager in 1973-74, then from 1984-2002. Through the years, he has worked with many other municipalities in an interim capacity, and he said few mayors could match up with Kennedy. “He was knowledgeable. He knew the problems of the town and took an interest in them.”
Combs said the two had their disagreements, but they hashed it out and Kennedy always listened and was deliberate in his thoughts and decisions. And he ensured that Combs was doing just as good a job as manager, Combs noted with a laugh.
“He was a great person to work with,” said Combs. “I just thought the world of him. I still called him the mayor when I saw him. He was not just the mayor, he was somebody you could do talk to when you had a problem and he would listen and try to help you come to some resolution. He wasn’t overbearing.”
In addition to Kennedy’s service as mayor and City Council member, he served on a variety of other local, regional and state boards, including the Governor’s Law and Order Commission, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, the Department of Aging Advisory Board, the Sampson County Social Services Board, the Clinton-Sampson Recreation Department Advisory Board, the Civic Center Board and the Johnston-Sampson Mental Health Committee.
Kennedy also faithfully served the Mid-Carolina Council of Government as chairman three times. He was the first recipient of the M.H. “Jack” Brock Memorial Outstanding Local Government Leader Award from the Mid-Carolina Council of Government. In recognition for the quality, sincerity and length of public service, the Council of Government named an annual award after him, a distinction that continues to be given annually to the outstanding municipal official in the region.
He was involved with the Lions Club and the Junior Chamber of Commerce, serving as president of both, as well as Graves Memorial Presbyterian Church, where he served as deacon. He was also a part of the Masonic Lodge and Shrine Club. An avid pilot who owned his own planes, Kennedy’s love for flying was evident in his work with the Clinton-Sampson Airport Authority, which he served as chairman for many years. Through his work with the Authority, he was instrumental in the growth of the airport, its facilities and technology.
He also took an interest in local recreation, working to bring quality facilities and programs to the town, as well as economic development, attempting to bring housing and industry to Clinton, Combs said.
Kennedy was very active in economic development activities in Clinton and Sampson County. He was instrumental in organizing and creating the Clinton Committee of 100 and the Clinton Development Committee, which solicited industry for the entire Clinton-Sampson area and were responsible for locating several other large industries in the community. The Clinton Development Committee purchased the property and built the building that was occupied by Hamilton Beach Company for more than three decades.
Among the many other numerous awards and accolades received by Kennedy during his years of service were the Order of Long Leaf Pine, the Clinton-Sampson Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Citizen Award and Citizen of the Year by the Sampson Independent. He was also the first recipient of the Clinton Jaycees Man of the Year.
Clinton City Hall was dedicated in his honor in 1990, an “appropriate” designation, Combs noted.
“He was not only recognized locally, but statewide,” said Combs. “He was just well-recognized as a strong leader who was knowledgeable of government and wanted to help Clinton.”
Kennedy’s private life centered on his family and work as a partner in Kennedy Wood Products and Kennedy Wood Turnings. He was an avid golfer and founding member of Coharie Country Club. Friday’s service at the Clinton Cemetery was very much a tribute to a lifelong city servant, with members of the Clinton Police Department serving as honor guard and members of the Clinton Fire Department acting as pallbearers.
Longtime Councilman and colleague of Kennedy’s, Lawrence Caison served with the man for 24 years.
“He was a fine man,” said Caison. “I think he did a great job for the town of Clinton and he was always very conscientious. I think he left his mark as a good mayor, and the city of Clinton was fortunate to have him.”
Current mayor Lew Starling said Kennedy set out to build a strong foundation for Clinton, one that did not come at the expense of the taxpayers. Starling said the city has a large fund balance because of his stewardship of taxpayers’ money.
“Mayor Kennedy was a model public servant,” said Starling. “During his 44 years of service, he helped set the foundation for the success of our community. He believed in creating the infrastructure needed to support a strong community and did so in a fiscally responsible manner. Our community would not be what it is today, if it were not for Mayor Emsley Kennedy. We are all indebted to Mayor Kennedy for his years of service.”
In honor of Kennedy’s service to the City of Clinton, all flags were being flown at half-mast from Thursday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 12. For the many who knew him and worked alongside him, they are quick to say it is a fitting tribute for a big loss.
“I think his legacy will be service to the town of Clinton,” said Combs. “I don’t think there will be another like him.”