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Robert J. Kingston dies; English professor, executive was 87

Robert J. Kingston, a longtime Mill Neck resident,

Robert J. Kingston, a longtime Mill Neck resident, died at a hospice center in Port Washington on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Handout

Robert J. Kingston’s life — full of travel, love and work — took him from London to Mill Neck, where he fell in love with a country that was not his native land but quickly became his home.

Kingston — an English professor who went on to high-level positions at the College Board, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Kettering Foundation — died at a hospice center in Port Washington on Aug. 20. The longtime Mill Neck resident, who had been in failing health for the past year, was 87.

Born in London in January 1929, Kingston grew up during the Great Depression and went on to serve two years in the British army of occupation in Germany, where he rode the airlift in and out of Berlin during the Soviet occupation, according to a biography provided by the Kettering Foundation. He studied English literature at Oxford, where he had C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among his professors.

He came to the United States in 1954 on a one-year international faculty exchange program at the University of Michigan to teach Shakespeare — but after his year was up, his love of exploring and living in new places led him to New York, the biography said.

Kingston longed to make his big break as a Shakespearean actor, but life had other plans for him, his widow Carol Vollet Kingston said.

He taught English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, and also taught at Brooklyn College and Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, where he became interested in curricular reform.

Later, Kingston became the director of planning and analysis at the National Endowment for the Humanities before moving up to the deputy chairman and acting chairman positions, according to the Kettering Foundation biography.

Kingston became president of the College Board in the late 1970s before joining Public Agenda — a Manhattan-based public opinion research and public engagement organization — as executive director. In 1981, he became a senior associate to the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, where he also edited the Kettering Review, the nonprofit’s journal on public life in American democracy.

Kingston was first married to Edith Kingston, who died in 1987. He and Vollet Kingston, an international designer of sets and costumes for prominent choreographers like Alvin Ailey, met at a dinner party at a friend’s home in Mill Neck in 1989.

Vollet Kingston said that after their wedding, Kingston adopted her two daughters, Victoria Richard of Riverhead and Alexandra Stevens of Kansas City. Kingston, who enjoyed theater and art, also is survived by five grandchildren, for whom he would often “hilariously” perform excerpts of Beowulf, his wife said.

The exhaustive traveling the couple enjoyed slowed down about five years ago, and this year, the couple set in motion plans to downsize, she said. They sold their 26-room home in Mill Neck that had become a gathering spot for friends and family and moved into an eight-room cottage on a horse field at Groton Place in Old Westbury, the former Winthrop estate.

Robert Kingston, a dog lover turned horse enthusiast, lived there with his wife for just five days before he died.

“I think of him when I look out the window and see the horses,” Vollet Kingston said. “I miss him.”

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held in October.


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