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Kenneth Jenkins is remembered as teacher, mentor

Kenneth Vincent Jenkins, an educator and mentor to

Kenneth Vincent Jenkins, an educator and mentor to students for more than 65 years, began his career as a high school English teacher in the Rockville Centre school district and later was a professor at Nassau Community College. Credit: Jenkins Family

Teaching was Kenneth Vincent Jenkins’ calling.

In a career spanning 65 years, he mentored hundreds of high school and college students, starting in 1953 as an English teacher at South Side High School in Rockville Centre and later as a professor and chairman of the Africana studies department at Nassau Community College.

“It was his mission. It was his calling. It was his life,” said his son, Roderick Jenkins, 62, of East Harlem. “Being a professor, that was the thing he got up and did every day until he was 89.”

Jenkins, 89, of West Harlem, died July 15 of a heart attack at Harlem Hospital Center.

His death brought an outpouring of emails and postings on the Facebook page “Professor Jenkins Says,” from colleagues, former students and those he mentored. His family created the page as a place for people to share their memories.

“Mr. Jenkins’s impact on me was partly his recognition of me, the relationship between us, but the greater impact was the example of a teacher who enjoyed all sorts of students and who taught to the individual students, aware of who each one was,” Jay Silverman, 70, of Manhattan, wrote in an essay he sent separately to colleagues and friends.

Silverman, in an interview, said Jenkins was his 12th-grade English teacher during the 1964-65 school year at South Side High and had a major impact on his life. Because of Jenkins, he changed his views on the Vietnam War and he followed his mentor's urgings to become a teacher himself.

They later worked together when Silverman taught in the English department at Nassau Community College.

“What I remembered was to like all students, whether they were good students or whether they disliked school,” Silverman said. “He was the example of that. I think he loved what he did, and I saw how that could be true for me.”

Born and reared in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jenkins graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School before attending Columbia College in Manhattan. He graduated from Columbia in 1952 with a bachelor of arts degree at a time when few African-Americans enrolled in Ivy League schools, college officials said. Jenkins went on to earn a master of arts degree in English from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1953.

After teaching at South Side High — where he also served as chair of the English department — he in 1966 started at Nassau Community College, becoming a full-time faculty member in 1972 and eventually chair of the Africana studies department.

His daughter, Rebecca Jenkins, 57, recalled the tumultuous nature of those times for the nation. “He was a black man, and back in the '60s, it was difficult,” the Mahopac resident said.

Kenneth Jenkins collected African-American and Asian art and focused on educating African-American students, according to his family.

“Our Christmas tree was not a normal Christmas tree,” said his daughter, who also became a teacher. “It had pictures of African-Americans through our history, and they were shellacked, and that was how I remember all the names.”

Both Roderick and Rebecca Jenkins recalled going to their father for advice on anything and everything.

“He believed in everybody’s opinion,” his son said. “He supported everybody. He encouraged everybody to achieve.”

Kenneth Jenkins, in a 1994 New York Times article on race on college campuses, described the need for a “forum where young people can discuss issues of race safely” on college campuses. NCC's Africana studies department is “a strong magnet for maintaining students on campus," he said then.

Jenkins' teachings extended outside the classroom. In 1975, he founded and led the Target Youth Centers, a network of youth programs in economically disadvantaged Nassau County communities. He served on the Long Island Community Foundation Board of Community Advisors and the Nassau County Youth Board.

He was a member, chairman and then president of the Pacifica Foundation, a nonprofit that owns five listener-supported radio stations. He loved jazz and always had WBGO-FM on the radio, his son said.

Jenkins' former wife, Elizabeth Hunte, died in January 2014.

In addition to Roderick and Rebecca, he is survived by his sons, Howard Jenkins of Great Neck and Roland Jenkins of St. Croix; daughter Leah Hoskin of Berkeley, California; godson Freedome Bradley-Ballentine of San Diego; and 16 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

A private inurnment service was held July 28. A memorial service is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 15 at the African American Museum of Nassau County, 110 N. Franklin St. in Hempstead.

The family asked that donations in his memory be sent to the museum, the food pantry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, or one of Jenkins’ favorite radio stations, WBGO-FM or WBAI-FM.

Delores Smalls, 76, of Westbury, a professor and counselor in NCC’s Department of Student Personnel Services, best remembers Jenkins surrounded by students after class.

“Students would come over in groups to talk about a variety of things, not only academic, but how they fit in the world,” said Smalls, who worked with him for 46 years. “He taught at all times and his passion was to bring out the best in students at all times, in and out of the classroom.”

In June, at the end of summer session classes, Jenkins had to go into the hospital for a procedure.

He emailed the final exam to his students, and graded them while in the hospital, Smalls said.

“You tell me that’s not dedication," she said.

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